Friday, September 10, 2010


Avatar is possibly the biggest film ever. It's long, it's expensive, it pushes the boundaries of what's visually possible, it's a technological tour de force and single handedly justified the push for 3D visuals in absolutely everything. It also made a simply preposterous amount of money.

It's also not that great.

This isn't to say it's bad, necessarily. It's highly polished, tightly plotted - it's to its credit that it's almost three hours long and also rarely boring - and comes with those visuals. The visuals are a celebration of the power of CGI, creating landscapes and geography that is completely impossible but nonetheless breathtaking. From floating mountains to detailed phosphorescent landscapes, the film is a fountain of visual imagination. The closest one can get to criticizing the view is that they are quite reminiscent of more than a few JRPGs - I'm sure I visited every location in FFXII - but they're so vividly realized that it doesn't matter.

Unfortunately, the visuals contain the only imagination. The story itself is a clichéd environmental allegory. The story's center is Jake Sully - Sam Worthington, who cannot maintain an American accent and show emotion at the same time - a former Marine who can't use his legs. With the death of his twin brother, he's directed to become part of the Avatar program, where he controls a big blue dude to interact with the Na'Vi, the indigenous population which has a connection with nature - literally, with some sort of hair USB cable - and is a not very subtle lift of magical Native Americans who show up in these kind of things. He's directed by trigger happy space marine Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and weaselly corporate guy Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) to get intelligence about the place the Na'vi live, so they can blow it up and mine some stupidly named "unobtanium". Unfortunately, he falls in love, with the Na'vi culture but mostly with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and decides that he's got to protect them forever. Also present are Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the gruff scientist with a heart of gold, and Michelle Rodriguez, playing a Michelle Rodriguez role. Guess what happens to her!

The characters are a grab bag of old ideas we've seen before a million times. The plot develops predictably, every plot development is predictable from the moment the film starts, and not one surprise happens in the three hour running time. The sole unique factor for the big battles is the switch between avatar and human, and how it affects the characters' reactions. The big bad just wants oi...I mean "unobtanium" - was there seriously no better names? - and that concern overrides. There are some less than subtle digs about colonialism and US foreign policy, the army guy just wants to blow stuff up and looks for flimsy excuses to do so, and in spite of the vibrant visuals the film is stock black and white - there is good, there is bad, and nothing in between.

It's a case where it's possibly the best film of the type possible - sorry, Fern Gully, you've been eclipsed - and it is so pretty it's tempting to just ignore the number of flaws in the picture. It's such a technological tour de force that it's easy to ignore that it has nothing unique or interesting to say. It's all visual, and while they're good visuals, there's more to film than that.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Business of Fancydancing

For some reason, I suspect Sherman Alexie didn't see himself making many movies. This is possibly correct, since The Business of Fancydancing is his only film. I say this because it plays like Alexie had to say as many things as he could, filling the film with daisy chains of ideas and commentary.

The film is about Seymour (Evan Adams), a celebrity poet and public speaker, who is also aboriginal, and also gay. It's about his struggles to be himself, his cultural identity, his sexual identity, his struggles with his past, his discomfort with the reserve. Back on the reserve is Aristotle (Gene Tagaban), who had potential but is done in by substance abuse, and Mouse (Swil Kanim) who is really good at fiddling but killed by substance abuse. So it's about their struggles too, the problem of reserve life, their identity...

That's a lot of ideas for 106 minutes. Plus there are moments of traditional dance and heavy use of rather good music. So it could be argued that the film is overstuffed.

Which isn't to say it's bad, of course. Alexie has a lot to say, and he tries a number of different experiments in order to say it. The film, in spite of it's clearly minuscule budget - a wild bar is very obviously a high school gymnasium, and all the trick lighting and hints towards the abstract cannot hide this - dabbles in different styles and different ways of storytelling. Yes, this is another symptom of Alexie wanting to get every idea he can compressed into one film, but it helps the end result immensely, bringing to life what amounts to a very internal journey for the characters.

There's a glimmer of brilliance in there, but at the end I hoped that Alexie would just settle down. He has some talent, and he can coax some effective performances out of his actors. He's also got a great deal of things to say, he just stumbles over himself trying to say them all at once. Many brief vignettes and passages rushed through could be the basis for an entire other film, and the struggles with identity can be explored in a much more thorough manner apart from the other stuff that happens.

I found that just saying everything, all at once, diminished the power of the many individual statements made throughout. In his struggle to say everything he wanted, it seems as though Alexie couldn't quite form coherent sentences about the rest of it. Too bad, it is, after all, a mostly good movie.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Better Luck Tomorrow

Let's talk about squandered potential. It's sort of relevant to today's movie, Better Luck Tomorrow, plot-wise, but it's much more relevant when it comes to that film's director and co-writer Justin Lin. Here's a movie that showcases lots of potential, from a director with a interesting and uniquely Asian American point of view. That's a good point of view! We should see more movies from that point of view.

The film is about a group of kids of Asian descent - mostly Korean from what I can tell - who are all associates in their school. The main character is Ben (Parry Shen) a slightly shy, slightly oblivious, but mostly intelligent young man who, along with aggressive and slightly annoying friend Virgil (Jason Tobin) and Virgil's cousin Han (Sung Kang) are roped into an elaborate test cheating and ultimately drug dealing scheme by Daric (Roger Fan). In the periphery, Ben wants to pick up Stephanie Vandergosh (Karin Anna Cheung), who happens to be dating the obscenely rich Steve (John Cho). Eventually these plot threads collide violently and the entire thing ends with a bit of superficially happy ambiguity, similar to the look of slight regret right at the end of the Graduate.

In spite of Ben being the main character, focus, and narrator, the real driving focus of the film is Daric, and his obsessive need to be respected and belong. He drives the events, from writing an article about Ben being a "token Asian" on the basketball team to introducing the group to all the schemes. The main group is clearly marginalized within the school system, though this is not always explicit, and Daric does everything he can to get the approval, or at least begrudging respect, of the people around him.

That thread of needing to prove something to the people around them is something common to the characters. They struggle for good grades and Ivy League scholarships to prove their value, either to themselves, their peers, or their parents - which are never seen on screen. They enter into criminal activities to prove that they aren't just the good smart kids, but have a violent streak, an aggressive streak, or to simply get the approval of their peers. Virgil, for example, flashes a gun around constantly in order to seem tougher than he is, though when actual violence appears he cannot handle it.

I won't claim to know the struggles of Asian people in a western society - I'm as white as the driven snow - but of course Lin does, and he makes a film that could only have been made by someone experiencing this kind of life. Lin clearly has a lot to say about growing up, and growing up in the shadow of great expectations and subtle discrimination.

So, naturally, I'm rather disappointed that Lin has abandoned meaningful and interesting films and has become the series director for Fast and the Furious. Much of Better Luck Tomorrow makes me curious about what he's going to do next, but his filmography in subsequent years has been by the book action films and, well, the Fast and the Furious. Maybe that spark of creativity is still there, but I wonder if Lin has been done in by his expectations of himself.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Das Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment is quite famous in the annals of psychology, in spite of being fairly poorly run and executed. Making one group prisoners and the others guards, it all quickly got out of hand, with rampant mistreatment of prisoners by the guards ensuing. It was inept, poorly handled, and unethical. So, imagine if it got even worse! That's the motive behind Das Experiment, a German film inspired by the events.

Here, we have taxi driver and sometimes journalist Tarek (Mauritz Bleibtreu) as one of the prisoners, attempting to get things completely out of hand in order to get a better story. He gains the attention of guard Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), who is in the process of going quite literally mad with power. Their antagonism is one of the drivers of the story, though eventually Berus just goes completely nuts, kills a guy, kidnaps most of the scientists, and gets all the guards to go along with him because they think this is all part of the experiment. It gets out of hand.

Also, Maren Eggert is Dora, she wanders around in her underwear. Her characters has no purpose whatsoever.

For the most part, the movie is a pretty interesting tale of psychological warfare. The Berus/Tarek conflict is a strong base for the film to build on, contrasting Berus' pathological need for control nicely with Tarek's need to get a good story. It's an interesting attempt to get to the psychological implications of the experiment, and by telling the story through the perspective of someone trying to ratchet up the intensity, it has a compelling anti-hero at its core.

In the need to keep continually raising the stakes, it also wanders in the river of implausibility. It's not so much implausible because of the treatment prisoners receive, nor is it implausible that some guards would develop sadistic tendencies. No, what's implausible is that the guards would turn on the bosses themselves. See, in the experiment, the people in charge of payment are the scientists. Locking up the scientists and assaulting them? Not going to happen, for the same reason the wardens at real prisons aren't locked up and assaulted: If you do that you're going to get fired and go home without pay.

The last act is meant to ratchet up the tension, but it just becomes completely unbelievable. Is it seriously going to get to the point where the guards even turn on the scientists in charge? Even if the lead guard is in it to beat guys up and overcompensate for smelling bad, the others will remember that he's not the boss, the scientists are, and beating up the scientists is a bad idea.

Also, real prison guards tend to not kill the prisoners. That's a pretty basic part of prison guarding, don't kill anyone.

It's not like the ineptitude of the inspiration needs to be enhanced anyway, and it could become just as compelling a film even without the outlandish last act. The need to ratchet up the tension does not serve the story, because it is unnecessary. Why do we need more than the regular batch of inhumanity? It's good enough to make the real story compelling, and at least it doesn't tread deeply into the realm of implausibility.

Friday, August 27, 2010

District 9

Science fiction is often used to give a little distance between the viewer and a hot button topic. Sometimes it doesn't work, such as in Star Trek VI, which was such a heavy handed allegory about the collapse of the USSR it rang false throughout. Sometimes it does, such as the best film about immigration and racism I've seen all year,">District 9.

So, here we're in South Africa, where a big alien ship has stalled, and the passengers have been moved to a slum called District 9. They're treated poorly, and then people complain that they commit crimes and are unruly, not realizing that having them in a slum situation likely doesn't help matters. Since they are planned to be relocated to a new district, clueless bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely, in a star making turn) is charged with serving eviction notices and generally getting them to cooperate. It goes quite badly, and leads him to become more like them than he anticipated.

So the entire thing has a bit of an obvious allegory going on, and that's pretty unavoidable given the content. It doesn't help itself by making a lot of the human characters obviously evil, which is usually a death knell for subtlety. The late film hero moments can feel kind of awkward for this reason, as Wikus does sort of kill lots of people.

So why does it work? Well, Copely sells the weedy bureaucrat who is forced to go against what he used to just accept. He's never a perfect character - even late film he does some extremely cowardly and dick-ish things, rare for a hero - but he's strangely likable, even when he's right there with the evil company doing bad things. He's a nice guy, the kind of guy you probably wouldn't want for a boss but who you'd go for coffee with and buy a couch from. He's a recognizable happy center.

It also works because it's such a good action movie that it doesn't give you time to recognize how simple it is being drawn. The themes are obvious, and ever present, but nobody ever dwells upon them. It is a big, impressive action spectacle that relies on the themes to give a purpose for the action.

Still, being a big action movie leads to the people killed, and one wonders if they couldn't learn, like Wikus before them, that the aliens are actually nice guys. If we learn more about people - or space people - by hanging out with them, I wonder if some of the cannon fodder could have gotten along with the aliens if given the chance. I can understand some characters being just completely bad, but most of the soldiers are just soldiers, it feels somewhat uncomfortable just blowing them up.

Sometimes it can be too clever. Flipping between documentary style and more typical film making is an interesting choice - and the documentary talking head interviews are a great way to do exposition without being really annoying about it - but it seems a bit indecisive, as though it doesn't know what it wants to be.

It's far from a perfect movie, and there are also some points where the script doesn't consider if a twist quite makes sense in context. Still, it's possible to be imperfect and still quite good, and as a statement of purpose, District 9 is evidence that director Neill Blomkamp is one to watch.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Ghost Writer

On release, it was impossible to talk about The Ghost Writer. Everything was filtered through a lens of director Roman Polanski's transgressions, interest in which was revived quite close to the film's release. To discuss the film was to discuss Polanski, and more than one critic read more into the experience than what was intended. It was a potential last film, it could be historic, after all.

To be fair, the film is about a man in exile due to crimes which happened several years before, not unlike Polanski. However, former prime-minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is not meant to be Polanski by any means, instead being a slightly smarmier Tony Blair. The ghost writer of the title is Ewan McGregor, brought in to replace the old ghost writer after he kills himself under lightly mysterious circumstances, eventually leading to the uncovering of an elaborate conspiracy surrounding the otherwise quite mundane Lang.

It's actually a clever tactic, making the former Prime Minister as boring as possible. The assignment, in the beginning, is straightforward. The new ghost is brought in to punch up Lang's autobiography because it is, frankly, terrible. It's presented as just a dull job, and constant shots of McGregor sleeping reinforce this. It's funny, because it makes the twists seem all the more interesting, since on the surface we're not looking at a spectacular or interesting man, just another PM. Ho-hum, right?

Polanski, for all his faults, knows how to make a thriller, and I seriously doubt it's even possible for him to make a bad one. So the Ghost Writer isn't a bad thriller. There are twists, it's a slow reveal, and one is often intrigued by just how deep things go. It's something Polanski has done before to great effect, and here it is clearly the work of a master of pacing and atmosphere.

Unfortunately, that master is just going through the motions on this one. To quote one of the characters, the words are all there, they're just in the wrong order. The story is actually good, but the leaps required to hit the right beats don't hold up very well. A key twist relies on a poorly designed website - never, ever a reliable source - and some characters just don't seem to exist, if that makes sense. They're there, they have dialog, but they're not really blessed with personality or interest. Also, while the final shot is beautiful, the questions it prompts are not quite the ones which it intends to.

That said, it's exactly what you expect, a competent thriller made by a guy who could make one in his sleep. This is no bad thing, and even flawed and imperfect there is a good movie here, one which is constantly interesting and compelling. Just not the greatest movie, and maybe that explains why just as much attention was paid to the director's troubles as the film itself.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Clash of the Titans

I've seen the original Clash of the Titans, though it's quite telling that I don't remember very much about it. There was some charming stop motion, a kraken, and assorted Greek things. Given that the film was such a memorable event, it stands to reason that the new Clash of the Titans is something equally memorable and distinct.

Given that it's 2010 rather than 1981, a few changes have been made to the formula. For one, stop motion is out like Ricky Martin and Lance Bass, replaced by shiny, shiny CGI - and I do mean shiny, the armor of the Gods is so glittery it's reminiscent of a prom photo circa 1987. The camera swoops and shakes, the script is slightly darker and more extreme, and the film owes an obvious debt to Lord of the Rings, especially in how it takes in sweeping landscapes.

The story largely does remain the same. Sam Worthington is Perseus, the generically handsome demi-god, who grows up with a family so wholesome you know they won't make it very far into the film. After they're completely expectedly killed, he decides he doesn't like gods very much, and is charged with slaying the Kraken, which is to be released by Hades, played by a combination of Ralph Fiennes and CG glitter - not sure why Hades has glitter, but there you go - as part of an elaborate plot to weaken Zeus, played by Liam Neeson and even MORE glitter. He goes on an epic quest involving giant scorpions, a disapproving Mads Mikkelsen, a sexy Gemma Arterton, lots of landscape shots, and a need to behead Medusa, as often happens in these greek myth movies.

Surprisingly, for all the mythology and big CGI battles, the film is surprisingly boring. One culprit might be the general overuse of CGI in all movies. While the original was charming in its silly stop motion animation, CGI can take the wonder and imagination out of a picture. There's no question of how they did the various stunts, we know, they had a bunch of computers render big beasties. When anyone with a PS3 and God of War 3 can see equivalent visuals, the magic is kind of sapped.

The script is also pretty dull, in the end. When you're working with material as well known as Greek mythology, the last thing to do is just go through the expected motions - oh boy, I wonder where the shiny shield is in Medusa's cave? - and Clash of the Titans doesn't stray very far from the beats followed by the original. Since the original wasn't that interesting to start with, it keeps it from being too compelling.

Putting Mr. Excitement himself Sam Worthington at the middle of the film is another stroke of dullness. I know, the guy was the star of Avatar, but he's still an actor most remarkable for how unremarkable he is. He's just some guy, and while that works in some contexts - like Avatar - when he's supposed to be a demi-god it kind of deflates the title.

At least Worthington has a bit of restraint in his performance, something nobody else in the film does. The acting here is bizarre, with over emoting, and BIG. ACTING. MOMENTS. which would make William Shatner hide in shame. It's bizarre, nobody in the film acts like a real person, the king of the bad acting being Luke Treadaway, who plays Prokopion. He's amazing, it's an acting train wreck, and he flails around wide-eyed. You just have to ask what is wrong with this character, and while that might be partially intentional it's blissfully distracting.

Still, it says a lot when the lunacy of one minor performance can trump the entire rest of the film. The CG battles won't stick with me, though I do remember one being confusingly edited. The story, I've seen it before, done better, and I'm not referring to the 1981 original - I am, however, referring to a Saturday morning cartoon series of which I can't remember the name. I'm not sure wh

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Repo Men

Forest Whitaker, Jude Law, Liev Schriber, come clean about that hooker you murdered. Maybe Alice Braga should also come clean about it, though I suspect she's just taking any Hollywood role she can find to establish herself as an actress. Regardless, we all know you killed that hooker guys. Why? Well, you're all talented actors who have a bit of a box office draw. You're all actors who should, by all logic, have free reign to choose your projects and pick anything which you want. You are all actors who, by no means, should be starring in Repo Men.

In a world which looks like Blade Runner with extra gushy gore, Jude Law and Forest Whitaker are Repo Men named Remy and Jake. What do they repo? Organs! Sweet, gushy, artificial organs, after people default on their sub-prime loans, issued by Liev Schriber's Frank, who is so slimy he apparently is also on a Nickelodeon game show. Remy loves being a repo man, even though his wife does not approve, and he and Jake go on many repo adventures as they murder hundreds of people to get their organs back, serving a business model which can't possibly sustain itself. Eventually, Remy has a change of heart - both metaphorical and literal - and realizes that he's pretty goddamn evil actually. Also, there's Alice Braga, who plays a singer who had every body part replaced. Her character is of dubious importance, though since I like her I'll say she was great in City of God and leave it there.

Repo Men packs one hour of story into two hours, stretching the premise so thin that it could be used as a salad strainer. Everyone in the film has a shiny new artificial organ, though everyone's also past due on their payments. How does this business model work exactly? We all know that the sub prime mortgage collapse did in a lot of large companies - the film seems to think it's clever to reference such an event years after the fact, because it's cutting edge - and if everyone's defaulting on their loans - and has to get an expensive repo job on their body parts - how does the company profit exactly?

If we were going to talk about plotting, there are so many rabbit holes to go down. The first half of the film is accompanied by Jude Law's ridiculous, half-jokey narration, which doesn't really add much in the way of context or anything, and presents a misinterpretation of Schrodinger's Cat so egregious that millions of quantum physicists were literally angry with rage. In the second half, we're presented with massive plot holes, ridiculously sloppy writing and some extremely heavy handed moments. Of course, there's a reason for this, that reason being a plot twist so awful that M. Night Shyamalan would find it beneath him.

I felt for the actors. These are talented people who just happened to kill that hooker - there really is no other logical explanation - and they are given a script with dialog that causes physical pain and doesn't make any sense. You want to rescue them, take them away from this set and to a production of a good movie, that isn't awful in every way.

Action movies can often get away with an awful script if the action is good. The action is not good, just gory. There's lots of squishy gooey surgery scenes, and people are stabbed with alarming frequency. There's also a fight scene that tries to rip off Old Boy but then decides it takes too much effort to film such an intricate sequence and just becomes quick cut and filled with unnecessary stabbing. A good stabbing can sometimes be a valuable piece of punctuation in a good picture, but when everyone gets stabbed what's the point?

It's amazing that something so awful can get past script approval, budget approval, shooting, editing, test screenings on the way to wide release. Producers want to make money, that's their job, so surely someone down the line thought "Wait, what are we making? Why are we doing this? Why did I approve this script? This is terrible! The reviews will be universally awful! Audiences will stay away in droves! What was I thinking?" Perhaps the producer also killed a hooker?

The soundtrack's good though.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Little Mermaid

Yes, I am watching a large number of Disney movies lately, what's it to you?

In a short, and not especially detailed version of a fairly long amount of history, Disney had turned itself irrelevant by 1989, becoming a theme park company and TV studio rather than a film company. Worse still, animator Don Bluth decided to make his own animated movie studio, with blackjack and hookers*, and his films were doing better at the box office. Then the company was almost taken over, Michael Eisner was given the reins, and The Little Mermaid stumbled onto a formula that Disney rode like the town bicycle: make it a catchy musical!

*The presence of blackjack and hookers is unconfirmed and possibly an awkward joke.

Oh, and what a catchy musical! The songs here are plain solid, no question, from the downright hilarious "Poisson Poisson" song to the catchy "Under the Sea" to the very pretty "Part of your World". Disney had gold here, and they learned how to mine that gold pretty consistently for the next 10 years. I sometimes wonder if the film's success might have been partially due to everyone humming "Under the Sea" when leaving the theater.

The Little Mermaid is based on the premise that teenage girls are stupid. Teenage girls ARE stupid, there's no way around this, and teenage boys are just as stupid. People are idiots from about 14-20, I'm sure there's a study confirming this. Ariel, today's teenage girl, is rebelling against her father, because he doesn't let her hang out with humans. Then she spots generically handsome Prince Eric, who she immediately falls deeply in love with and makes a series of increasingly dumb decisions in order to get closer to.

Teenage girls love generically handsome men - witness the current popularity of the Twilight series, or the previous popularity of boybands and people named Corey. In the interest of fairness, teenage boys love attractive ladies who wear only seashells, so it's understandable that our prince falls for Ariel at first glance. It's one of those love stories where you wonder how long it'll last, because hell, this relationship is based on ogling.

I might be down on the film, but while it moves towards a pre-ordained happy ending, it actually is pretty effective at capturing the problem with teenagers. They're rebellious for no reason, consumed by lust and hormones, and very stupid. The villain is evil because she takes advantage of these flaws we humans all share, that being our love of our kids and our immense stupidity in our teenage years.

The happy ending does throw a strange wrench in the gears, simply because there's not really enough of a consequence for their actions. While getting there is inconvenient, they do get married at the end, which kind of confirms their instincts were right. I know of more cases of teenage stupidity where the instincts were wrong from beginning to end, and they didn't end in a pretty ending with fanfare.

Then again, I know of relationships forged in moments of teenage rebellion and idiocy which worked, and 30 years later the couple is stronger than ever. Yeah, it's the exception more than the rule, but maybe it means a story like the Little Mermaid isn't necessarily all wrong. Sometimes love works, even if everyone involved is making ridiculous decisions to get there. The Little Mermaid is just a rare example of raging idiocy working out in the end.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cowboy Bebop - The Movie

The common complaint when a TV series reaches the big screen is that it's like a regular episode, but bigger. It's a bizarre complaint, because the creators are trying to bring what is good about the series to the screen, and deviating too far would make it something completely different from what the series was in the first place. When you watch a series like Cowboy Bebop, an extra long episode is what you want anyway, because the episodes work as really good little movies.

Taking a completely different tack from Serenity, Cowboy Bebop doesn't use the film to unravel unanswered questions and put a neat little bow on things. Granted, the TV series actually ended the way the creator wanted to, so there's less incentive to do that. Instead, we've got a mystery that's a bit more complex than usual, taking place mid-series. The Bebop's crew is investigating some guy named Vincent, who's spreading a complicated biological weapon and killing lots of people, culminating in stopping him from killing even more people.

Placing the film mid-series kind of deflates a bit of the tension. You know none of your leads are going to die, and you know the day will be saved. I'm not sure that matters though, because even in the regular series there was really no danger of Spike and Jet dying, at the bare minimum, and while Faye and Ed's connection were more tenuous than the two central characters there was a confidence that they would come back. So the film works the same way the series does, just longer.

That's a good thing! The series was always best when it explored complicated villains, and there was always a lot of good action, and it filled 25 minutes with more character development than some long running film series' do in their entire run. Now, we get 2 hours to go deeper, explore characters more thoroughly, and have the mystery take a little longer to unravel for us. This is a great idea, and the idea of watching long Cowboy Bebop should be appealing to everyone.

Not that it's perfect. The villain's motives seem a little muddled, and the ending is surprisingly abrupt. Yeah, the plot itself had pretty much finished, but it seemed like there was still a little more story to tell. Faye also spends a lot of time tied up on the floor, which felt a little gratuitous.

Still, watching the world's longest Cowboy Bebop episode is a great way to spend time, and there's plenty of action and mystery to go around. When people complain something is just a longer version of a regular season episode, point to this, as an example of why that's sometimes what you want.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Do you like Phil Collins? Do you looooove Phil Collins? That's the question you have to ask yourself if you intend to watch Disney's Tarzan, a mostly acceptable Disney film which also features liberal sprinkling of Phil Collins and montages.

The story goes that one day a man with an awe-inspiring mustache and his wife move to Africa. They build a big elaborate cabin and listen to lots of Phil Collins music. Also fans of Collins are a family of apes, who just had an adorable baby. Unfortunately, there's a big mean leopard about, and it eats the adorable baby. In spite of his abilities to grow amazing facial hair, the leopard also eats the man and his wife, though their child survives. As a result, said child is adopted by a lonely ape, and we learn valuable lessons about love, adoption, fitting in, and listening to the music of a former Genesis drummer and current bald man.

It actually is a mostly interesting film. Tarzan's journey to find himself and learning about where he came from is pretty good, and his interactions with Jane and trigger happy evil man Clayton are just as compelling as the wacky ape parts. It's also very beautifully animated, meshing 3D and 2D in often fascinating ways, proving that they can live together in perfect harmony and are actually more attractive this way - I'll take a million Tarzans over something that looks like Bolt.

That said, there's also stuff that is less successful. Rosie O'Donnell, who plays best buddy ape Turk, is annoying. Actually, the middle part of that sentence wasn't really necessary on second thought. There's this elephant that hangs around who doesn't seem to fit in anywhere but as a plot device, and I am really quite sick of Phil Collins now.

It's pretty standard fare and I'm not going to call it the best thing Disney has ever done. On the other hand, it's solid entertainment and has a number of really interesting quirks and twists as it goes. It's pretty good entertainment, and it is actually fairly decent as a whole. Unless, of course, you don't like Phil Collins. The number of people that applies to is surprisingly high, isn't it?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


When you hear about something based on a true story, somehow you begin to expect something that is a bit less true than is being advertised. A bit of sensationalizing, perhaps, a combing through of the parts people expect with a large quantity of dramatic license to massage it through. So if Badlands is based on the true story of a young couple hiding out after one of them kills lots of people, you'll likely expect something that's a bit of an action thriller about young love and copious amounts of sex. That's not what you get when you watch Badlands.

Okay, it's about young love, that much is true. Martin Sheen at his sexiest plays Kit, a sexy garbage man who is sexy, and 25. Sissy Spacek is Holly, a 15 year old girl who does music lessons and baton twirling. They fall in love in a slightly creepy relationship, which Holly's dad (Warren Oates) does not approve of, for obvious reasons. Kit kills Holly's dad and she goes on the run with him, because teenage girls are stupid.

However, instead of being about these hot and sexy young lovers sexily loving each other in a young way, it turns into something very different. It is, more than anything, a meditation on loneliness, as the pair's only companion is the car they steal and acres of empty space. This is partially due to Kit needlessly killing everyone he comes across, so you're not quite sympathetic for them, but the film does a good job of emphasizing just how alone and apart from the world they are. Sometimes they're just the only object in frame apart from an empty sky and an emptier field. It just emphasizes their isolation.

The film is also quite pretty, in spite of the awful '70s film stock which was de rigueur. Shot composition is often breathtaking, always beautiful, and sometimes does a better job of telling the story than the script. It's about two people in the middle of nothing, and the shots are perfect at emphasizing their situation.

That said, the film is far from perfect. Spacek's narration doesn't really serve much purpose, apart from reminding us that she's a teenage girl and thus stupid - this is a trait shared with teenage boys by the way, it's just that there aren't any in the film to call out for their stupidity. Kit's character is obviously charming, a point emphasized by the later scenes where he charms all the people who tried to arrest him, but he's not very consistently charming, which undermines it a bit. Also, mountains of Saskatchewan, are you serious? Gales of laughter right there.

Still, it does what it seems to have intended all along, and it does a good job. The film presents the loneliness of people who brought it on themselves in a surprisingly sympathetic manner, and is pretty strong overall as a film. It could easily be seen as boring, but if you're in the right mindset, it's almost therapeutic.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Resident Evil

Some films can evoke a specific time and place. Sometimes it's intentional, since a good period piece can bring a bygone era to life, or a genre tribute can revive a style long dormant. Sometimes, it's unintentional, and the period evoked likely wasn't the period intended. Resident Evil reminds me of the '80s, but in this case, I don't think that was the intent.

Why is that? Well, in some ways, it's the manner in which it's shot. There's lots of spooky smoke machines and a muddy palette that evokes the '80s for me. It also starts with a slow zoom on a frame much smaller than the screen, which I haven't seen since then. In other ways, it's just a campy zombie picture, and campy action is something I associate with the '80s for some reason. This is a film that Cannon Films would gladly attach their name to. It's got marines, things to shoot, action beat, and typical scary movie slow zooms followed by quick cuts, because that's shocking.

The story itself doesn't quite make logical sense. There's a big scary lab run by a computer which manifests itself as a little girl because that's a little creepier. Some virus gets out and the computer decides to kill everyone in a series of elaborate ways. A team sets out to investigate and is killed in ways which suggest the computer is an asshole - there's a hallway with lasers where they are toyed with for no obvious benefit - and then zombies show up. The core team played by Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Eric Mabius, Matt Addison, James Purefoy, and Martin Crewes investigate, have mysterious secrets and mostly get killed by zombies. There's even some bad CGI to connect it with the Playstation original.

One of the main faults is that nothing happens for any logical reason. The entire existence of the McGuffin of the day - the T-Virus, which zombificates people - doesn't make much sense, the computer's elaborate killing of people doesn't seem especially logical itself, the entire go down and shut the computer off plan seems unnecessarily risky, though not as risky as giving it the power to kill everyone. Character motivations are never adequately explained and sometimes contradictory, and in some cases the reasons for the characters even being there doesn't make sense.

So it's dumb, it's kind of low budget and the story doesn't make any sense. I was sort of entertained in spite of it though, and that's because the premise actually sort of works. Why do I say that? Well, you've got a confined space, lots of baddies, and a bunch of plucky individuals who need to escape that confined space. Turns out that setup is remarkably difficult to mess up. I also liked the industrial metal score, it was mostly strong and even kind of catchy.

It's not good, it doesn't make sense, and it's pretty stupid overall. Yet, it makes itself enjoyable in spite of many, many obvious flaws. The real reason why? Because it reminds me of the '80s. It reminds me of those wasted afternoons watching bad '80s films on channels like TBS. I can understand hating it, because it's stupid, but it's bad in the right way.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Know the myth of Heracles? Well, discard that in your mind for a moment, it has little to do with the Disney film Hercules. There's good reason for this. You really can't discuss Zeus with bringing up the messy matter of rape - Zeus loved him some rape - and in the original legend Zeus went around as a woman's husband and did some raping. Then Hera was irate at this and decided to punish Heracles a lot.

Now, in the Disney version, that doesn't happen. Instead, Hera and Hercules are in a rape-free monogamous relationship, and Hercules is their beloved son. Then he's stolen away, made mortal with magic juice, and has to be trained by Danny DeVito. Then he finds a girl named Meg, and they live happily ever after, until her murders their children in a fit of rage.

Disney didn't show that last bit either.

The question here is obvious, why did Disney adapt Hercules? It's a story filled with violence, rape and murder. As such, it's slightly less than family friendly. Take all that away, and you've basically got Bam-Bam Rubble smashing his way through a formula. That's fine, since it's Disney, but they could have really adapted anything if they wanted to have a formula. In spite of the names, it doesn't really involve the real legend.

That would be fine, if it was good. Mulan had some serious plot alterations from the poem on which it was based, but they served a dramatic purpose. Here, it's all bad jokes and light plotting. The story is padded - heavily - by the chorus explaining what's going on, but it doesn't really move the action. The story itself is by the book, and the overall film is just low-tier Disney. When the studio was on, they could make masterpieces, but when they were off, they were just dull.

There are some very weird references scattered throughout which make me wonder just what was going on. Scar from the Lion King becomes a lion skin, the names frequently reference the real story, and small details show that someone knew what they were doing. Then the illusion is ruined by the fact that you know in the back of your mind that they're getting even the basic details wrong, and they're not replacing those details with better ones.

It's also the only Disney film with a nipple, but that's easy to miss.

If I was 8, maybe I would like it, but people who are 8 typically have very low standards. It's not awful, per se, but it's simply not as good as Disney is capable of making. Knowing what they can do - and Mulan is an example of this - it's difficult to watch something in which they aren't at their full potential.

Friday, July 23, 2010


Disney princesses - sorry, Disney Princesses, since it's a brand - are as a whole pretty useless. Their stories tend to revolve around getting a man, keeping a man, being saved by a man, and generally bending to the will of a man. Then, at the end of the day, all they get is a pretty dress. Yet, the princess formula is an integral part of Disney's success, and something which they have made a lot of money on. Still, I imagine some people within the Disney empire was getting annoyed by how completely useless the princesses are, for the most part. Hence, Mulan.

Mulan is counted among the pantheon of Disney Princesses, but unlike, well, all of them, she isn't useless. Hell, the entire film is about how women aren't useless (and possibly also about being a lesbian, but that's reading a lot into it). There's a society that doesn't value women, so Mulan becomes a man and joins the army so her father doesn't have to. Then she kicks everyone's ass and kills thousands of enemy soldiers. She also scores a man, but that part is mostly pushed to the last five minutes because that's really not the focus here.

She essentially beats all odds by not only being a Disney Princess who doesn't suck, but also possibly the most badass Disney character. She certainly has the highest body count, at the very minimum. Her actions are pretty much presented as the pinnacle of badassery, with there being frequent mentions of her being a girl, just to point out that the ladies are doing it for themselves. It's a break from the convention of useless women, a female Disney character who does more than fill out a dress and pick a handsome yet earthy guy.

Of course, it's a Disney film, so formula can't be abandoned completely. Are there catchy songs? Are there ever! Do we get wacky animal sidekicks? Oh baby, ladies and gentlemen, Eddie Murphy as a pointless dragon! It's also got that trademark very pretty Disney animation, which is a highlight, but even as the story breaks some conventions, it strictly adheres to others, and it still does the "heroes have to end the story together" thing that was pioneered a mere 1000 years ago.

Actually, I wonder how much better this might be if it wasn't Disney. The story is fairly violent - war, China fighting off the huns, etc. - and there are several cuts and scenes where you could see the filmmakers straining under the restrictions. A full on bloody spectacle could easily be made - and made well - with this material, and it often feels about a half step too safe.

Still, it was progress, and proof that someone at Disney could make an interesting female character. Yes, they had to dress her up as a man, but still, somewhere in that land of dormant franchises and elaborate theme parks, a nugget of feminism remained. A tiny nugget, that never really got a chance to flourish as the studio was confused by changing tastes and Pixar generally doing a lot better job of filmmaking than they were, which lead to a pile of bad decisions and worse movies, but a nugget. A nugget obscured by the Disney Princesses brand, but a nugget. Hopefully people see beyond the surface glitz of Sleeping Beauty, the naivety of Snow White, the balls to the wall stupidity of Ariel, and the general pointlessness of Jasmine to find that nugget.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Smokey and the Bandit Part 3

I recently complained that Smokey and the Bandit II didn't do what it says on the tin. Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 does, and yet, it's somehow worse. How does that work?

Well, for all their flaws, the first two movies had a story. It wasn't a good story, or a deep one, but it existed. There was a forward momentum, something to follow, some characters that you could conceivably care about. This doesn't have that. The story? No real story, just a destination, with no real connection from point a to point b. It's a collection of silly vignettes that have nothing to do with each other.

Hell, the warning signs come early. No Burt Reynolds - well, there's a pointless cameo, but he's largely absent - no Sally Field and the director was not Hal Needham. Is it that hard to get Hal Needham? He's not exactly an A-list director. He's barely even a C-list one, how crap does your production have to be if you can't get Hal Needham? Jackie Gleason is back, though he phones it in, and Jerry Reed grows a mustache and turns into the Bandit. Yet, while he actually turned in a pretty respectable performance in the first two, he's possibly the most annoying thing on screen.

So, let's cover what is done right. There are a lot of stunts, and many are well done. They don't really serve much purpose, but if you want to see cars crash through things, well, this is a movie where that happens. The breadth and depth of things being crashed through is vast. It's a very impressive variety of pointless crashing. Also, in one scene you can see a nipple if you look closely.

That's it.

Some stuff is just weird. Some scenes were heavily, and obviously, dubbed in post production. Reportedly Jackie Gleason also played the bandit in the first cut, which wouldn't have made sense, and I wonder if that change explains the variety strange cuts and general incomprehensibleness of the goings on. Other strange things are nudists and having our heroes stumble into an orgy. That seems like an odd choice when the film really is only good if you're 8 or watching it on TBS while making a cake. Speaking of the orgy, that sequence is weird, as the bandit character and the smokey seem to be in entirely different worlds, as one goes to a rather dry novelty hotel and the other picks up a tranny hooker.

But mostly it's just bad. The comedy isn't funny, and there's no reason to care what happens. It's just a series of slow motion car crashes, without any reason to follow or care. It forgot that while lightweight, pointless and often stupid, the first two Smokey and the Bandit movies were, well, movies. They had stories, characters, and even a little tension. Not great stories, characters, or tension, but they were there. This just has cars crashing into things. I'm pro cars crashing into things, but unless there's a reason for it, what's the point?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Smokey and the Bandit II

There are two reasons people want to watch Smokey and the Bandit. Reason 1, to see a man with a mustache drive a black Trans Am recklessly. Reason 2, to see Jackie Gleason swear and play a jerk cop. Smokey and the Bandit II, unfortunately, decides that the main reason people want to watch a Smokey and the Bandit movie is to watch some bad comedy. This is an erroneous assumption.

The story must be a meta commentary on the production. Jerry Reed is eager to do a silly run like in the first movie for muchos dineros. Burt Reynolds is a washed up drunk coaxed into another race in order to further his fame and fortune. Sally Field - who is introduced in a way that must have been commentating on her contract negotiations - also wants money. And Jackie Gleason plays so broad that he has to play three different characters. There's also a literal elephant in the room, perhaps referencing the metaphorical one, that nobody besides Jerry Reed wanted to be there.

It's a retread, and a bad one. There's a dearth of car stunts - no black Trans Am until 25 minutes in, not even a stunt until 47. Everyone is visibly annoyed and wanting to be somewhere else - with the exception of Reed, who actually seems to be enjoying himself, as though he just likes to be on camera. There's really only one notable stunt sequence - though it's a biggie, with what looks like hundreds of cars destroyed - but until we get there we've got a lot of pointless elephant-based drama, bad comedy.

I liked that the relationship between the Field and Reynolds characters collapsed between films, that was believable. It seemed like the natural conclusion, as they had nothing in common and a relationship forged in high stress circumstances. I also like that it made fun of Reynolds' ego a lot, since it's clear he's got a big one. I didn't like how even with a pointless story it didn't really have an ending - it seemed like they just ran out of movie - I didn't like how it tried to setup an even more awful sequel, but more than anything, I didn't like that it didn't do what it says on the box.

Nobody cares about anything but the stunts with this kind of movie, and the first one realized it. This either didn't have the budget or the effort needed to do what it says on the box. If you're going to do an unnecessary sequel, at least keep doing what made the first one so... decent. Don't turn it into a bad comedy, that's forgetting why people watch in the first place.

Good lord, there's another one of these things?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Smokey and the Bandit

Some movies are intellectually stimulating, deep, and artistically challenging. That does not describe Smokey and the Bandit. There's really not much substantive in this film at all, though of course that doesn't mean it's a complete loss.

Truth be told, if you're watching the film you're really not looking for much in the way of story. Burt Reynolds is the Bandit, Jerry Reed is the Snowman, and they're trying to get beer from Texas to Georgia for a bunch of money. On the way they meet a runaway bride played by Sally Field, and misogynist, racist, and all around objectionable Buford T. Justice, given life by Jackie Gleason, who happens to be the potential father-in-law of said runaway bride. Also in a starring role is a black Trans Am, which goes really fast.

Plot exists solely to give some motivation for some super fast driving and to destroy as many 70s full sized sedans as possible. We're introduced to a fraternity of CB radio enthusiasts, as though the CB industry had heavy investment in the film. Everything happens as an excuse to drive fast and smash stuff.

Is there anything necessarily wrong with that? Well, if you're looking for substance, yes. Smokey and the Bandit was seemingly designed to allow director Hal Needham to film lots of stunts - he's a former stuntman after all - and provide a light Saturday afternoon of entertainment. It's the kind of film that works perfectly on a channel like TBS, there to watch between other programs with every minute leading to something a bit amusing or an impressive stunt. The story is kept as bare as possible because you really don't have to follow it, so why bother?

This isn't to say that the film is meritless, just really lightweight. The junk food of cinema, let's say, but even junk food can be really tasty sometimes. Plus, there are some things that it does right. For one, it's really well cast. Field is great at being simultaneously charming and very annoying. Reynolds has an effortless, bad boy charm and Reed has a strange neurotic charm which also somehow works. The star of the show, really, is the Trans Am, which has this redneck cool that shouldn't be nearly as appealing as it is.

The best actor of the show, by contrast, is Gleason. He manages to make Buford T. Justice into a really horrible asshole that you never object to so much that you hate him, but always just enough that you want him to lose. Every loss where you might feel sorry for the guy is always ended by a perfectly chosen line where you are reminded that this man is an ass. It makes it okay to root against him, but also okay to like it when he's on screen. He's the kind of person you love to see fail, which is good, since he fails a lot.

It should also be noted that it's the source of possibly the world's greatest driving song, Eastbound and Down. It's not used as well as it could be - the chase it is used in is actually a surprisingly boring one - but it's a great song and I always drive a little more irresponsibly when it's on the stereo.

So Smokey and the Bandit has merits, it's just not a very deep movie all around. It's fun, more than anything, for the actors, the cast, the crew, and everyone. Nothing wrong with being fun, and that's why it got two sequels, which will be covered in the coming weeks. Why? Because they're included on the DVD I got, that's why! Hope you're prepared for Smokey and/or the Bandit forever.

Friday, July 9, 2010


I don't claim to know why genre conventions have evolved as they have over a hundred years of cinema. The two cops which are opposites, serial killers, all the conventions that have sprung up over the years for crime-based films and I've got no idea why they exist. Still, at this point they've become so well known that they become a reference point for something completely apart from a cliche. Se7en is an example of this, a taut disturbing thriller grounded in genre conventions which everyone knows and loves.

I mean, we've got the typical standards here. Morgan Freeman plays a cop who is too old for shit, especially this shit. Brad Pitt is a passionate upstart who lets his emotions run wild. Together, they fight crime, and a serial killer who models his murders on the seven deadly sins. Seen this before? Yes, you have, though perhaps not the seven deadly sins part, and it actually is strangely comforting as the movie starts. Here's something familiar, something tangible that we can identify with after years of movies doing the same thing.

Then it takes a wild turn for the messed up zone, and thank the lord for that.

By basing the movie around two characters which could easily collapse into cliche it becomes a little bit more disturbing overall. The familiar sights are combined with something completely different and more than a little disconcerting, and it's filmed in a moody, tense way which is a complete departure from a typical police film. There is something familiar in the mix, and that makes the content itself more disturbing, and the ultimate conclusion significantly more shocking.

See, what it does is take something we know, love, expect and appreciate and turns it on its head. It's almost a commentary on film cliches in a way, as it takes the most predictable of genres and makes a film that is as unpredictable as you can get, and which goes in directions which nobody can anticipate. It takes cornerstones of enjoyable fiction and turns them in on themselves, a clever and engaging move.

A good film will go somewhere you won't expect, even if that direction makes complete sense as you go through the story. This does that, and for that it has to be one of the best intense thrillers that you will ever find. It's likely not far from the truth that this film made David Fincher's career, and considering the unique, varied and often dark directions he's taken, it's a career we can be grateful for.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Bad Sleep Well

Every so often, I'll mention that a film's subtitles are conspicuously bad. Sometimes, the movie is bad to start with (Immortal Enemy), but it's often the case where bad subtitles are just annoying. Now, the first time I saw The Bad Sleep Well, it was a downloaded copy with awful babelfished subtitles. The movie was clearly good, but the serious tone was undermined by lines like "YOU JUMP DOWN AND DIE!" Now, having watched the classy, well done subtitles on the Criterion release - legitimately, might I add - I can honestly observe the difference a proper translation makes, and also why if a film was good, not even the worst translation in the world can hold it back.

The story was still clear, even if the details were hard to parse. Toshiro Mifune is Nishi, a secretary and son-in-law to powerful guy Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), vice president of the Public corporation, which has something to do with Japanese building contracts. Iwabuchi is corrupt, and powerful enough to get people to kill themselves (an element uniquely Japanese), but he made the mistake of suiciding the wrong man. As a result, Nishi's out for revenge, in a plot that's quite complicated and rewarding in equal measure, with a shocking twist ending.

That story brought me back again, for the second time, even as bad as the translation was, but I appreciated that well written dialog made things a lot clearer. It took away the constant distraction and put the focus squarely on the picture, which is great, because it's a good one. The dueling themes of corruption and loyalty play out in frequently compelling ways. The scheme isn't necessarily complicated, but it also is intricately woven in with the personal relationships between characters. Corruption is a theme, but what corruption does to people is the important part of that theme, and the focus is always on the people rather than the scheme itself.

I'm sure I've mentioned before that Akira Kurosawa makes films like a painter, and this film is no different. Hell, this is the movie that gave me that realization in the first place. Just in the way shots are framed and actors positioned can tell the story of the scene, and sometimes it does more than the necessary exposition in establishing character.

It does have a couple problems. There's a lot of exposition, which can get tiresome as it's not always strictly necessary - sometimes things are explained a bit too much for no clear reason. Kô Nishimura's turn as Shirai requires him to react in shock, which at times seems to border on the ridiculous overacting that sometimes plagues silent films. Still, that's just me picking nits, because that's what I do.

Everyone thinks of samurai epics when they think of Kurosawa, possibly because he was very good at them. However, with this, he proves just as adept with a modern setting and characters. They reach into the core problems of Japanese society - especially of the era it was made - perhaps better than the old samurai, possibly because they're more easily identifiable. The corporate shenanigans are something still relevant 50 years after the fact, and it's one of those films that will always be just a little relevant overall.

Friday, July 2, 2010


One of the reasons television is having a renaissance lately is that people have finally figured out the strengths of the medium. Free from having to deliver everything, all of the time, TV shows can often have entirely character-centric episodes, a slow burn of a story, subplots that anchor the show and are never quite revealed, and so on. In a movie, you have to begin and end in two hours, and while subplots don't hurt they generally have to be wrapped up unless you're ludicrously confident that a sequel is going to happen. Even telling the same story, it's a completely different pace, and one which necessitates taking a very different approach to storytelling. As a result, it's always interesting when a TV show takes to the big screen, and in the case of Serenity, tell a season's worth of story in about two hours.

Serenity picks up where the beloved, short lived, and mishandled TV series Firefly left off. Mal (Nathan Fillon) is still the captain of the Serenity, old war hero for the losing side, and general enjoyable screen presence - albeit with the dick meter pegged a bit higher here. His crew is still a lovable cast of characters which everyone became fond of during the show's run, but the story itself focuses squarely on River Tam (Summer Glau), everyone's favorite slightly crazy young psychic girl who can absolutely, positively, kill every motherfucker in the room if triggered. There's also Chiwetel Ejiofor as the cold operative who is trying to kill her.

There are two pieces of the show's mythology that have never been explained that the movie tries to wrap up. The story of how River got to be so crazy, and that of the reavers, people who eat people. Here, they neatly align, so we can get some of the mysteries explained just in case the movie didn't get the series renewed. Given that part of the story is about the reavers, we also have an excuse for a lot of action, which seems to be the law for sci-fi films.

Serenity had a pretty much impossible job, reaching out to old fans and yet attracting new ones, which is pretty hard at the best of times. It didn't work at the box office, since Firefly is now truly dead, but I wonder if it could have. Characters are introduced briefly, but this is all about Mal and River, meaning the supporting characters are not given nearly as much to do. If something happens to a character, while a fan might be crushed, someone just wandering in might be curious why they're supposed to care. It relies of those 13 original episodes to give some moments of emotional resonance, which is a shame if you're not a fan of the show.

I was a fan of the show though, and it's nice to see what amounts to a really big series finale. It does feel like a double length episode at points, but that's really no bad thing, as the show was consistently witty and heartfelt, and anyone who liked it would just want more. Serenity fills that need, but I worry that in doing so it might have been alienating to people who never watched Firefly first.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

8 1/2

Federico Fellini was possibly the most influential Italian director in the history of cinema. He's added words to the English language - Paparazzi, for reference, after a character in La Dolce Vita, which is also a term familiar to most - and is cited as an influence by pretty much every director you can name - and several you can't. In spite of his clear talent, it's comforting to know that he also wasn't supremely confident at all times. How do I know this? I've watched 8 1/2.

Now, that isn't to say anything negative about 8 1/2 - in fact, prepare for praise - but instead just a response to the subject of the film itself. Some might suggest that the movie is slightly autobiographical. After all, it's about an Italian film director struggling with a concept for his next picture and also with his wife and mistress. Fellini, was an Italian film director, the title was a reference to the total number of movies he had made before, and he made this movie because he wasn't sure what to do next. I won't claim to know what his marital situation was at that time, but there's a large amount of vulnerability here, almost a kind of therapy, as Fellini lays bare his own frustrations through proxy characters and events.

It's a feel good story, but not in the traditional way. Everyone has had moments of a loss of confidence, everyone has been nervous and everyone has had times when they don't know what to do next. If you're a creative type, you can recognize that, just as in the film, the act of creating can sometimes seem like going steadily insane.

I understand this, and I'm sure everyone has had moments of a supreme lack of confidence and uncertainty. The liberating aspect of this film is that one realizes that an influential filmmaker at the height of his powers felt the same way as we might, and he worked through it to create one of the best films you'll ever see. Now, we're not all Fellini, but there's a certain something life affirming about the enterprise. The knowledge that the feelings are normal, and that people aren't alone at these lows, it's kind of uplifting.

The best part is, even if you don't know the story behind it, the frustrations and triumphs are laid bare on screen so you can fully grasp what is being presented. It takes the intimately personal, and makes it universal, and that's not only a difficult trick but a highly worthwhile one. I don't simply understand Fellini more after watching this, I understand myself. That's what truly great art can do.

Friday, June 25, 2010

First Do No Harm

TV movies have a bad reputation. This is essentially because the worst of them just take an issue, and interpret it in a basic manner. First Do No Harm is let's learn about epilepsy.

Of course, as someone who knows a bit about the subject, there are some things which don't really work. Having a kid subjected to an intensive battery of tests after one seizure is inaccurate, though it's likely the time line was compressed for the sake of time - it's only an EEG the first time - and it isn't a case of "two seizures is epilepsy at all times" - I don't have it and I've had more than one. Whatever, that's what happens when something has to be easily distilled into an easy to understand manner for the sake of a TV movie.

That's the problem though. Learning about epilepsy - and the assorted crap about why the US health insurance system is pretty much terrible and screws everyone over for arbitrary drama - isn't really a plot. Meryl Streep, while a classy actor, can't really elevate the proceedings above a PSA. Jim Abrahams, while once good at comedy, simply can't pull off being a drama director.

It's heart is in the right place, really. It wants to help people learn about a condition that is both serious but not so bad that people with it can't be perfectly normal. It wants to educate, which is admirable, and it wants to show off a special diet which helps some people, which is similarly admirable. It's just that with education as the top priority, making an entertaining movie is too far down the list.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bad Guy

If you watch enough movies, you notice cinematic tricks. For example, casting a sympathetic looking actor and playing lots of evocative piano music might try to get the audience to like a character. Kim Ki-Duk knows this, so this trick is deployed in Bad Guy, except with a rapist. It's a film about a man doing horrible things - hence the completely justified title - presented as a love story.

Jae-hyeon Jo plays that Bad Guy, a mostly silent protagonist who tries to pick up the lovely lady played by Won Seo, and fails, spectacularly, as he just creeps her out. Then he kisses her and she likes him even less. So, he effectively tricks her into being a prostitute and watches as she is essentially raped over and over again. So yes, a bad guy.

Ki-Duk films it like a love story though. Jo's got a great emotional face, and he just looks so gosh darn likable. If you walked in mid-way through you'd think awww, this guy could never be a rapist, look at him! Plus the really pleasant soundtrack manipulates you to care about him, which would be fine if he was like Sting and trying to stop her from being a prostitute, rather than forcing her to become one due to deception.

It becomes a commentary on how film can manipulate us into feeling things which might not be deserved, but it's kind of awesome for that. Sure, it's very difficult to watch, and most people will be completely disgusted by the events that happen on screen, but that's kind of the point. It's a reminder that a good director is going to play with your emotions, and you have to look past the pretty soundtrack and evocative shots to see what is really happening.

I've read people say the picture is misogynistic, but I think Ki-Duk is just trying to mess with the audience. Here's a guy deploying as many cinematic tricks as possible to turn a story about a horrible person doing terrible things into a love story, and Stockholm Syndrome into something romantic. It's manipulative to the highest degree, and is quite provocative because of it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Aura

How do you make someone interested in what happens next? That's the basic question behind pretty much any film, but is especially vexing if it's a thriller or a mystery. Everything depends on audience curiosity, and if that disappears your film no longer works. With The Aura, the solution is to keep everything slightly off, and just keep the audience that little bit off balance. The Argentinian thriller maintains a slow pace by ensuring that you simply must know what happens next.

That is apparent right from the first shot, where we are introduced to our protagonist - a mild mannered taxidermist played by Ricardo Darín - on the floor, passed out. We are never given an indication why, though an answer arrives later once it no longer needs to be mysterious, and we're simply introduced to this man who is on the floor, obsessed with the perfect crime, and makes his living stuffing animals. He is a mystery from the first shot, and even as we learn more about him he is always slightly beguiling.

The story, centered around the taxidermist, involves a hunting trip he takes with a colleague. The colleague goes home, our taxidermist sticks around, and stumbled upon what he believes is the perfect crime after accidentally killing a guy. Things evolve as he bluffs his way through the details to get in charge, and to say much more would spoil the endlessly complex and clever payoff. Let's just say it ends well, in a rather meaningful manner.

This is the second film from director Fabián Bielinsky, but it's also unfortunately the last film, as he died young. His first feature, Nine Queens, I also saw, and it had promise but was endlessly gimmicky and was a bit in love with how clever it was. This manages to reach a balance that the previous film never did. It's still extremely clever, hiding important details in plain sight and having events interact in unexpected and fairly brilliant ways. However, it's also smart enough that hides the clever script behind it, never quite calling attention to the often brilliant plotting. It knows how to keep you intrigued, and it's the same reason the taxidermist can get away with becoming a master thief, it lets you know just enough to satisfy your initial curiosity and hides the rest.

It's also beautifully shot, and the choice of shot is as clever as the script itself. We are always well aware of the taxidermist, where he is, and what he sees in any moment. We know only what he knows, which in the grander scheme of things makes the plot that much more compelling. We're not in his head really, except for some rare moments, but it's more that we're a third person in the party, which for some reason is always following him along. It's an effective tactic, and it plays out in unexpected ways, including a shootout that takes place completely off camera. This does leave one or two unanswered questions, but it also keeps everything compelling. Restricting information is much more effective overall than sharing it. True, we never quite get inside the heads of anyone, but maybe we don't have to, it's what happens next that is the real prize.

There are many thrillers that explain away their premise or dispel the fog that surrounds them, and they're all the weaker for it. Here's one that lets you know only as much as you need to follow one part of the plot, and lays the rest of the pieces out around so you can learn the rest. It's possible to put the puzzles together, but even if you do, the slightly off kilter mood keeps you wondering just exactly how it all plays out. It's a shame Bielinsky died before he got the chance to make a follow up, this guy had real talent.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


One of the stranger things about Moloch is that it's actually a pretty relatable story. Yelena Rufanova plays a young woman in a relationship with an insufferable blowhard who also happens to have a great deal of power and influence (Leonid Mozgovoy). As a result, she's the only person who can disagree with him, since he surrounds himself with yes-men who wouldn't dare, no matter what they actually think of some of his ideas. Some of the aforementioned yes men happen to be with him on what can only be described as a very awkward vacation. Nobody really gets along with each other, and there's an uncomfortable veneer of civility surrounding the whole thing which is obliterated whenever certain people get together away from the others they don't necessarily like.

I've been in similar groups, where everyone is barely getting along and can only survive by talking behind backs. I've been in groups where there was a clear ass who nobody liked who everyone was too cautious to actually confront. I've also been on awkward vacations with people who didn't quite get along. I'm sure everyone has been in similar situations, it's just something that happens when people assemble in large groups, some of the pieces just don't fit together without a great deal of artificiality. It's a uniquely human experience.

So, it's interesting that Aleksandr Sokurov, the director, tries to distance people as much as possible from the film itself. It takes place in a very remote castle, surrounded in mist. Rufanova's character is introduced in a ten minute, wordless sequence of her just being bored and dicking around in the castle. The sets are large but vacant, calling attention to how unnatural the entire thing looks. Oh, and everyone in the film is a Nazi.

That's right, that young woman? She's Eva Braun. The insufferable ass? Only the biggest ass in history, Adolf Hitler. It's surreal to have the Hitler being portrayed as basically a really annoying boss, and every time you begin to relate to the characters someone in uniform is spotted on screen and you think "oh right, they're Nazis." While it captures the awkwardness of people who don't quite get along, it also never stops reminding you that these people, in spite of their eminently human qualities, were also generally history's greatest monsters.

It's a very strange piece, in that it does engender a lot of sympathy for Braun, who is depicted as being just one of millions of women who fell in love with a jerk. She's depicted as always a little unhappy, and as a result it creates an ultimately sympathetic character. Yes, a sympathetic character who is also Hitler's girlfriend, it's a strange thought to have, but if she's presented as an exaggerated version of every woman who married a monster, maybe it's not a bad idea.

I can't quite figure out if it's a problem or a strength that such an intrinsically human story also happens to be about Nazis. On one hand, it can yank you out of it, and you do feel bad about being able to relate. Then again, the Nazis were people, even if they were people with thoroughly objectionable ideals. I've said it before, but sometimes we need to be reminded that they were people, just to get across that we should be always on the lookout for people of the same nature, to prevent a similar result.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Kung Fu Hustle

Looney Tunes, at its best, is animated slapstick comedy. Taking full advantage of animation, it takes a blend of likable characters and allusions to other work, and shoves them in a blender with some comedic violence and visual trickery. It is a series of visual jokes, animated ridiculousness, violence and pure energetic joy. So, if someone were to make some sort of live action Looney Tunes, it would be impossible. Luckily, CGI was invented and as a result, Stephen Chow could pull it off with Kung Fu Hustle.

The story is a little strange, designed seemingly to string along the endlessly inventive and wonderful sight gags. Stephen Chow - who also directs, and who can probably kick Ralph Macchio's ass - is Sing, a generally disreputable character who tries to make a few dollars by pretending he's with the scary Axe Gang. In the end, he manages to do little more than make the Axe Gang angry and get them to pay attention to smelly little Pig Sty Alley, with it's disproportionately high number kung fu masters. Hilarity and awesome ensue.

I compare it to Looney Tunes because it has the same sense of visual wit, though a bit more grown up. It also uses a number of the same tricks. Characters have an unnatural elasticity to them that recalls Daffy Duck's beak spinning around after being shot in the face. Physics here play by a unique set of rules designed to make things a little bit more funny and emphasize that this world just isn't real. That aspect helps things that might otherwise be kind of terrible - like a cat getting cut in half - into something hilarious, since the film doesn't pretend to be remotely realistic. Even the more brutal scenes are emphatically not real, which allows you to have a bit more fun.

Not that Looney Tunes is the only film that comes to mind here. Chow is clearly a fan of movies, since anyone who has watched far too many can spot subtle allusions and references - and blatant ones too - and can tell that some bits are clearly inspired by old Chinese pictures I have never seen but now want to. It's just in love with the possibilities of the screen, both in the unique ways it can use it and in the ways others had used it beforehand.

I often prefer practical effects to CGI, and in the hands of an incompetent filmmaker CGI can be a crutch or a distraction. Chow, however, has found the perfect use for it, to make live action cartoons and just have fun with the possibilities that film can bring. There's a joy here that translates through the screen to the viewing audience, and that's fantastic, it's always a pleasure to see a director/star clearly thrilled to be doing what he's doing.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Lion of the Desert

When a movie breaks 2 hours, the rules change. Every scene must be essential, every cut, shot and camera move considered. There are some reasons for this, most not particularly concerned with art but rather pure practicality. Theaters can make more showing a film every two hours than they can every three, bums get sore after two hours in theater seats, and bladders might get annoyed, especially if you bought a larger soda before the showing. Lion of the Desert is almost three hours long, does it justify it?


In the first half hour, 20 minutes were pretty much unnecessary. In fact, Rod Steiger's Mussolini could have been completely excised without doing damage to the narrative. Characters are established multiple times, and there isn't very much consideration of what is strictly necessary. Pacing is deliberate, which isn't necessarily a problem, but it repeats itself so much that it is a struggle to maintain interest.

The story also suffers because it's trying to be a bit of propaganda for Libya, which makes sense because it was financed by Muammar Gadaffi. The setting is right before WWII, as Italy invades Libya and discovers, much to their astonishment, Libyans would prefer it if Italy didn't take them over, thank you very much. Anthony Quinn's Omar Mukhtar is the Lion of the Desert - presumably rejected titles included "Totally awesome guy who everyone loves" and "Badass motherfucker" - and is also possibly an android. He's a rebel and a teacher, presented as having no human flaws whatsoever and projecting an almost beatific glow as he goes around killing Italians with his rag tag crew. He also speaks in a very deliberate tone for some reason. His enemy is Oliver Reed's Gen. Rodolfo Graziani, who is significantly more interesting as he tries to end the war by killing as many Libyans as possible. The general actually resembles a human - though the kind of human you wouldn't exactly want to be best friends with - consumed by ego and determined to win Libya simply because he believes Italy should have it.

That's part of the problem, the only really believable character is the villain. The perfect hero smells strongly of a film that's financed by a wealthy military dictator who wants to make some propaganda. He's drawn too simplistically, and not really fleshed out as a person. We can't believe in him because there's little more than some quotes and a deliberate speaking style. He doesn't show emotion, he doesn't show depth, he's just there for what he represents. It's not a character, it's a symbol, and compelling movies aren't made out of symbols.

There are other, very strange problems with the film too. One is the sound recording, it's remarkably poorly done. There are early scenes filmed in a castle place that are basically echoes, and it is impossible to understand dialog. This happens repeatedly in the film, as the sound makes actors with otherwise powerful speaking voices sound like they're mumbling and incoherent. Supposedly powerful scenes are ruined when you just can't make out a damn thing people are saying.

It's not entirely bad though. The core story, even if the center of it isn't remotely believable, is solid, and there are some individual moments worthy of interest. There's a subplot about one family which is actually stronger than the rest, because the members do seem human, sympathetic and have a story which is worth caring about. In fact, the film does seem to have more to say when it leaves boring old Omar and focuses on the real victims of the war, the regular people who just want to be free from Italian persecution.

Perhaps, one day, someone will revisit the story, and do it justice. I can't help but think that Libya and Omar Mukhtar weren't very well served by this simplistic, overlong, and badly recorded film. There are moments of beauty, moments of relevance and moments of good hidden deep within. But, when the film dies every time its center appears on screen, a film dies overall. And it dies so many times over those three hours.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Attack the Gas Station!

When I'm not watching movies, at random, I do other things. One of those other things is play videogames. Currently, I'm playing Saint's Row 2, because it was cheap and is mostly fun, apart from a couple really terrible late-game missions. The most interesting thing about the game is that the characters are clearly awful people who murder other awful people and generally do terrible things. Yet, you root for them, because they're funny, even if they're mostly psychotic insane people. Why is this relevant? Well, Attack the Gas Station has a similar dynamic. You're alternately horrified and amused by the antics of the main characters, the overall plot, and the entire film.

In film, four no good punk kids (Sung-jae Lee, Oh-seong Yu, Seong-jin Kang, Ji-tae Yu) decide to rob a gas station. Then, they decide to rob it again, because they have nothing better to do. When there's no money, they take the gas station over and hold the crew hostages, while randomly kidnapping customers if they annoy them. In the process everyone learns life lessons, everyone finds their hidden talents, and at the end of the day everyone is a better, more well adjusted person better able to confront the challenges life brings.

Self improvement through acts of violence and hostage taking is a decidedly odd premise, especially for a film aimed directly at no good punk kids. The film is filmed and presented as wacky fun, with interludes of the four heroes doing some nasty, unpleasant stuff to their charges because they can and they're asses. A different director and it could easily be about four people who terrorize this station.

But they're funny, so you like them. You especially like them after they force cops to actually pay for gas, and learn that their lives are a source of perpetual disappointment. You hope these abused little puppies stop chewing on slippers and blossom into the beautiful golden retrievers they were meant to be. Then you realize, holy crap, they're beating on people for no reason and are almost trying to induce Stockholm Syndrome in their charges. Wow, they're jerks, why do I like them so much?

Someone with less faith in the intelligence of their average person might argue the entire premise is dangerous - seriously, everyone's lives are dramatically improved, except for the two people locked in a trunk and then never seen again, no word on them - but I'm suspecting everyone realizes that this is just dumb fun. Same deal with Saint's Row 2, it's just letting you into the world of terrible, yet funny people you would never want to meet in real life. It's interesting how by making you laugh, sins can be forgiven.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Paths of Glory

Someone once said that it was impossible to make a truly anti-war film because film, with it's explosions and choreography and whatnot, always makes war look fun. Evidently that person wasn't well versed in cinema, since there is a pretty clear example of how to keep explosions and battles and make war look anything but fun. Paths to Glory accomplishes the feat even with a big battle and enough explosions to make the German government suspicious during filming.

The trick is that most of the film is about the politics surrounding war, and what it can do to relatively innocent soldiers. The entire piece revolves around Gen. Paul Mireau (George Macready), a general who desires a promotion and glory, who places his ego above the lives of soldiers. When Gen. George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) proposes a plan to take a location known as the Anthill, Mireau initially refuses, before he gets proposed some personal gain. Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas), in command of the regiment, is forced to follow the order, and the battle goes predictably badly, leading to a kangaroo court martial and general unpleasantness.

From the beginning, it's reinforced that there is a disconnect between command and the soldiers on the front, as command happens in a conspicuously shiny castle while the actual battle takes place in the dirty trenches - often captured in claustrophobic but frankly brilliant tracking shots. The contrast is made as conspicuous as possible, and the generals are made to be especially out of place during battle. The battles themselves don't actually show much success on the part of the army either, consisting mostly of slow crawls, intimidating explosions and lots of dead bodies. It strategically removes everything that could possibly be considered fun about war, replacing it with the ever-present specter of death.

That not scare you away from war yet? How about almost all leadership being shown as willing to destroy the men under them to protect their own reputation? Dax is shown to be an idealist and mostly honorable, and Macready seems to have grown a mustache solely to twirl it, but those are the two extremes of film. Within, there are many more subtle ways of murder in the service of ass covering, from the explicit - everything Mireau does - to the subtle - a character marked down as dead after his commander runs away from a battle. Even soldiers who are brave and exemplary in battle are screwed over just to ensure a general's ass is appropriately covered, just to emphasize that if the battles don't get you, the commanders will.

Of course, this is no surprise, since Stanley Kubrick is behind the camera and the man was an insane genius. Nobody lights a scene like Kubrick, and there is an execution that is almost unbearably tense and seems to taunt the viewer for having compassion. The film manipulates you completely with how it's shot, with only the rare music cue for emphasis. It has nothing but sympathy for the main characters, and then kicks their ass for emphasis.

I'll agree that the majority of war films are not anti-war for the reasons outlined in the first paragraph, but to say it is impossible is a lie. The trick is to stop yourself from making war look fun. Paths of Glory makes war look like what it is, violent and filled with death. That's a way to make it seem less appealing.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Apple

Cannon Films, run by Israeli entrepreneurs Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, pretty much captured the zeitgeist of the '80s. Their low budget films revolving around ninjas defined a decade that is now forever associated with ninjas, low budget, and video games. However, Cannon was hardly consistent, or good, and they had this strange obsession with musicals that they could never shake, which resulted in the modern classic Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (which I actually own, because it was $5 and I could say I owned Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo on DVD for that low, low price). This odd love of musicals resulted in The Apple, today's subject.

I've heard the Apple described as a completely insane disco musical that failed spectacularly. That might be overselling it a bit, but it is a disco musical that is also influenced by equal parts Fahrenheit 451 and the Bible (hence the Apple of the title), with an ending that comes completely out of left field. It is certainly strange, but I'm not sure if it's strange enough, to capture that sense of batshit insanity that a truly nuts film has to do.

It's 1994, and the World Vision Song Contest - It's supposed to be like Eurovision (which is going on right now!) except in the world, though it shares a name with a charity. In this 1994, a big media corporation called Bim controls the world, run by Mr. Boogalow (I wonder why Golan and Globus love that word so much). Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal, hamming it up) is the devil, quite literally, and runs the world with money and sellout disco music. But, from out of nowhere comes two plucky young kids from Moose Jaw (a running joke which is naturally annoying to me, being from Saskatchewan and all) who capture hearts with a sappy love song that is also not very good, but pure. Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alfie (George Gilmour, with a distinctly non-Moose Jaw accent) are subsequently invited to make deals with the devil, becoming a super famous pop star like Lady Gaga and a hippie bum respectively.

Possibly the most interesting thing is the depiction of 1994, which actually manages to get some things right, even way back in 1980. Okay, nobody listened to disco, but people did wear lots of neon pink, and to get one detail right in these supposed futures is always impressive. Hell, look at the list of product placement in 2001 that showed mostly businesses which no longer existed in 2001. Naturally, some things didn't pan out. The 1970s mustache died an ignoble death, and for some reason glittery gold speedos never caught on - given the sheer number of glittery speedos captured on film, one wondered if Golan and Globus had stock in a company that made them - but hey, neon, we sure wore that.

The Apple does have some fairly astonishing scenes, like when an older pop star (in a silver speedo) convinces the female lead to both eat the Apple and that it's a natural, natural desire to meet and actual, actual vampire. There's also an amazing sequence when Alfie trips balls at an orgy and we are treated to the underwear kama sutra with men in golden speedos and women in nighties while we're treated to a surprisingly explicit song about seduction. The ending, which does not make sense in any context, is also worth noting, though I suspect that it was a focus group thing and the original ending was much more grim.

There is a problem with the Apple though, and that's that it tries to have it both ways. It decries the sell out nature of disco music while packing the soundtrack with disco hits. It decries the status of entertainment and has a corporate run state, but doesn't do anything with them. It reaches out to dirty hippies without having a single song that a dirty hippy could "dig". It seems like it wants to convert its audience away from disco, which is sort of noble, though in 1980 people were naturally moving away from disco anyway, possibly because it sucked.

It's hard to say that the Apple is worth watching, but it is fairly memorable when it hits its insane highs. Golan, who also directed, soon realized his true calling, which involved breakdancing and ninjas (and ruining Superman) but in this, the most nonsensical of musicals, he decided to get personal, and state what was wrong with music and the world. The strange thing is, he was sort of right - the story of Bibi doing a complete image shift from singer songwriter to vapid disco queen bears a striking resemblance to Lady GaGa's rise to fame - he just expressed it in the most bizarre way possible.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Another Public Enemy

Sequels are always tricky. On one hand, you've got to give people what they liked from the first film, but on the other hand you have to give them something else. It could be going bigger, with flashier special effects, action sequences, and just more in general. It could be a change in direction, with taking care to bring insight into characters that might not have been obvious before. As a fan of Public Enemy, the Korean action dark comedy, I was excited to see what would happen with Another Public Enemy. It takes an approach I'm not sure I approve of, it makes it respectable.

So Kyung-gu Sol is back as Gang - or Kang, in these subtitles - being promoted from inspector to prosecutor. He is, again, confronted with a rich man who believes he is above the law - Han, played by Jun-ho Jeong - though he is a bit less brutal with his murdering, and is mostly involved with a complicated money laundering scheme. In the new film, we see Kang have a newfound respect for the law and due process - though not so much respect that he doesn't step outside it frequently, especially at the end. As a result, he's a bit more respectable, but less funny and interesting, and less compelling to watch. The old crew is back, but they're not up to their old antics.

It's a case where I might actually have a different opinion if it weren't the sequel. The political maneuvering as Han tries to get people off the case is interesting, though he's a less interesting character than he might be. The attempt to sell off property in order to get rich in America is a lot less sinister than it might be, and Han just isn't that compelling of a character, being a one note bad guy overall.

Unfortunately, with the dialed up respectability the action is dialed way down, with the majority of the maneuvering taking place in offices as people talk politics. It's actually not a bad premise overall, but I felt disappointed by it, as it trades the original film's tension and intrigue with much less tense and much less intriguing moments.

Another Public Enemy isn't bad, per se, but I couldn't help but think that it had been neutered. It doesn't have the teeth it once did, and making Kang respectable makes his character less interesting overall. It makes me think that maybe sequels generally aren't a good thing, because you can't have the same thing twice, but if you deviate too far it ends up being a disappointment. Perhaps Public Enemy should have been left alone.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Immortal Enemy

I didn't realize it at the time, but this week has become a theme week! Aren't you excited? Yep, both features feature ghosts, though the quality of the two entries varies pretty dramatically. Since you already know that the last MaR entry was something good, you can likely assume that this week's is going to be bad. Calling Immortal Enemy bad seems a bit unfair, but it most certainly isn't good.

Due to bad subtitles disagreeing with the IMDB and with, um, themselves, I have no idea who plays anyone. Not that their performances stand out, but if you just have to know the minor roles of Thai people in silly films you're going to be disappointed. Anyway, the film starts in the past, as some douchebag decides that he really wants to marry a woman who may or may not be named Bonnie. Unfortunately she is married to Don, so he does what any sane and rational man would do, and that's kill Don's family and tear Bonnie's face off. No, wait, sane and rational are the opposite of the words I was thinking of, never mind then. In the process, he also drinks some foamy eternal life potion, and makes an aquarium implode, not exactly sure how that works but whatever.

Then we go into the present day, where worst boyfriend ever Eddie or Ned - Neddie? -takes his girlfriend Elly, or Cherry, depending on the scene - for convenience, I will call her Chelly - to the basement of his new (haunted) house, which is filled with scary mice, snakes and cockroaches. Then, apparently off screen, he becomes best friends with senior Douchebag, who is a ghost, and also a vampire. He goes around killing people and doing vampire things. Don and Bonnie are also reincarnated as Willy and Lorna/Ellen respectively (Lorlen?) who have to beat the vampire through a magical incantation or something. Also, nobody questions that, for Thai people living in Thailand, everyone has western names, which change constantly, making everything obnoxiously hard to follow.

Okay, one of the main faults - astonishingly bad subtitles - might be part of the reason for one of the other main faults - this movie makes no goddamn sense. There are nuggets of an interesting idea - something about reincarnated people living out their past lives again could be pretty cool if properly handled - but there are also mysterious ghost hunters, vampires who are also ghosts who are also perfectly fine on a sunny day, everyone's name changing by the minute, and it never being completely clear who represents what and how.

What it feels like is a situation where someone made a list of all the scenes they want in a movie - sex! action! snakes! comedy! someone getting their face ripped off! - and then just tried to construct a narrative around it. That's the only explanation for the plot, which goes off the rails completely in the first 10 minutes and then bounces merrily through the field of incoherence.

I actually don't always hate a movie that makes no sense, provided it's done with style, but that's another area where Immortal Enemy doesn't work. It makes heavy use of bad handheld, as though it's not confident enough in its own stunts, and the special effects aren't even trying half the time. It looks like what it is, an amateurish mess. Sometimes that can work, sometimes it can even get a cult following, but here, it's just a bizarre ramble, and for the biggest crime of all, it's a midnight movie that doesn't make incompetence fun.