Friday, August 31, 2012

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

Eddie is a transvestite hostess at one of Tokyo's clubs. He/she spends her time working, being in the films of a friend, taking drugs and trying to find love.

Said to be one of Stanley Kubrick's favorite films and a big influence on Clockwork Orange this is probably one of the best films most people have never seen.

Released in 1969 this film is as fresh and shattering as it must have been back when it was made. Set in a "Gay" world this is actually a movie about people and how they act and feel, the fact that they are gay is irrelevant. These are real people in a real world that seems to be happening now instead of when it was made (due no doubt to the stunning black and white photography).

The film uses just about every 1960 "art film" technique you can think of and does so better than any film in from Europe ever did (Buñuel, and Bergman should have been this successful). Interviews of the cast, sudden juxtaposition of scenes, shifts in tone and style, sudden bursts of violence, all blend together to tell a story of a search for identity and place that is in its way universal, even if its outcome is not.

This is a movie that is simple to explain, but difficult to sum up. The effect of it being somewhat greater than the simplicity of the storyline.

See this movie. This is one of those movies that movie lovers should search out.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Life as McDull (2001)

Hong Kong animated film that concerns the reflections of an older McDull, seen here as a pig, back on his life as a five or six year old. Its a combination of live action, 2D and 3D animation that could only have come out of Hong Kong.

Beginning with the birth of McDull this film then jumps to his arrival in school and then goes from there. McDull and his mom seem to be taking on the world alone and we see how she struggles to raise her son and get by as McDull is seen to be both unaware of the poverty that he was living in (as the child) and yet as the adult he's keenly aware that his mom was doing the best she could to raise him as a single parent. It manages to both captures the bliss of the innocence of being a child as well as the melancholy of how the knowing adult looking at the same situation would see it. It warms and breaks your heart at the same time.

Absolutely a great film, the films one real flaw is that its a bit too disjointed. The pieces don't always fit together or lead into each other in such away as to make a unified whole. I was hoping that in the end it would all come together and while it didn't quite the final piece manages to wrap it all up nicely.

Largely unavailable outside of Asia this film really needs to be seen elsewhere in the world. I understand why the film hasn't been seen in the US since its "manage to have it both childlike and adult" style would be off putting to a studio who wouldn't know how to market it. But considering that the film spawned multiple sequels, a TV show, Karaoke discs, a toy line, and more in Asia one would think that this is truly a movie for everyone (its mix of adult and kids humor makes it almost a movie one could grow up with)

If you love great movies see this film.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Chronicle (2012)

One of the best found footage films concerns three friends who climb into a hole and are cursed/blessed with telekinesis as a result.How they go from small tricks to pranks, to darker things is the film.

Running a scant 80 minutes this is one of the few found footage films that you actually want to be longer. It's one of the few times where you actually feel that things are happening off screen that you want to see. In most cases with found footage films you desperately want things to stop. We're seeing way too much, we're seeing way more than we should or at the very least nothing we'd have wanted to see in the first place.

What I like about this film is that this is a story that we've all seen in the comics for years but never seen translated to the real world. How would people react to getting super powers? How would they really react? More so how would they react if they were damaged individuals. One of  our heroes is the sort of damaged people that in comics that over comes their damage to become a better person. What happen here is probably a hell of a lot closer to what would really happen....

Could I suggest that this is possibly one of the best super hero movie ever made?

This is how found footage films should be done.

One of the best films of the year.

Men Must Fight (1933) (revised)

MEN MUST FIGHT is a very eerie film from 1933.

Whats eerie is that it was made in 1932, released February 17 1933, and it predicts not only World War 2 which it places eeriely in 1940, but also Neville Chamberlain's return from Germany with a promise of peace for all time. It also predicts with an uncanniness the battle of those who seek peace with those who seek war and the questions of who is truly patriotic. Basically it predicts the arguements of the last three monfew years.

The story concerns a woman who, in pre-code days, sleeps with a flyer durng WW1 three days after meeting him. The flier is killed and she with child marries a friend. Together they raise the child as their own.

In 1940 the country is marching towards war with "Eurasia" (Orwell and reality had nothing on this film). The "father" is now highly placed in the govermewent and working toawrds peace. An assassination of one of another US official sets things in motion towards war. The mother is extremely pro peace and the father follows the goverment. The son leans towards peace.

As the march to war comes the question of what is right and what is wrong in advocating peace and following ones heart is examined. It also raises the questions of whether or not there are ways to end war forever.

Another eerie bit is the discussion of the gas bombs, ten of which each no bigger than an orange would wipe out everyone in New York. The grandmother quips "Well if they do use them I hope they don't smell bad."

As the war quickly escaltes New York is bombed, the Brooklyn Bridge and Empire State Building (two weeks before King Kong premired at Radio City) are destroyed. The choices that everyone has made as to what they beieve is thrown into chaos as the closeness of war throws light on the other other side's view.

This is an incredibly complex movie that could not have been made a year or two later as the Hays Code crept in and as the march to war in Europe and the rest of the world became a real one. This is a good melodrama that raises questions that are still important.

Whats so amazing is that this is a good film even with out the eerire overtones. Yes its occasionally static, and the special effects are creeky, with one shot of planes rolling by a reviewing stand done as a process shot with the proportions incredibly wrong, and it bogs down in to talkiness of melodrama for a a few minutes half way in, but this is a really great film to watch when you want to see one something from the good old days.

I would say its the sort of film they don't make any more except that with rare exceptions they never made them like this at all. (Which is true about 99% of the films they say they don't make any more, they never made them like that even then.)

If you can see the film. The only place I've seen it, and the source of my copy, is Video Search of Miami. Perhaps if you're not willing to plunk down money for it, Turner Classic Movies runs it now and again.

See it, it will make you think.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dark (dead) Waters (1993)

(This is my review for one of my favorite horror films. Up until recently no one really knew what it was. It played last year at Scary Movies at Lincoln Center with the director in attendance, which I couldn't go to. This was a blog entry I made after I first saw the film)

I should be asleep...

But I have to get this down.

I stumbled upon this film completely by accident. I had ordered the Japanese film Dark Water and was sent this instead. The retailer told me to keep the film in order to make up for their error. It was a weird thing to have happen, and I figured it must be some cosmic sign, so I sat down to watch it having zero idea what it was about.

The plot of this film has a young woman going to a desolate monastery/nunnery in order to find out why her recently deceased father had been supporting it for years. Once there things are far from "normal" and there are many hidden dark secrets, not all of them are particularly healthy for our heroine.

This film really knocked my socks off. This is a movie that reminded me of many of the Euro-horrors of the 1970's and early 1980's. You have weird cults, young women, murder, mayhem and monsters. There is a weird tension that comes from everything being ever so slightly off center. You can't help but feel uneasy since you don't know how weird things are going to get nor do you know who is going to end up dead.

(SPOILER AHEAD) The only real problem is that even though the movie creates a very real claustrophobic world of religious oppression, with real characters, the film completely falls down in the last minutes when we see the "demon" that has been lurking around, at that point things go right into the toilet. How do I say this? Its worse than a man in a suit. it simply a rubber nightmare that almost completely ruins everything that has gone before. Simply put its on the list of really bad monster costumes. (Think about what happened at the end of the Conan the Destroyer)

If you can get past the bad monster and just take the movie for what its trying to do, then you'll enjoy the movie, if you need a perfection you'll love it up to a point and hate the ending.  

(and yes I do have the set in the picture)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Tucked Into Bedlam (2003)

Tomas Kubinek's film for the CBC has at last unspooled before my eyes. I had to order a copy on VHS from a Canadian film service but I got my hands on it.

Tomas Kubinek is one of the greatest clowns I've ever seen. He is a sad sack sort of clown who seems like a twisted Sylvester McCoy with a dash of Chaplin and a dollop of Keaton. The man is an absolute genius, its a statement I don't make lightly nor with out a huge grin on my face.

The film is an opened up version of one of his stage shows called Bed, which I've never seen. It concerns an insomniac cabaret artist imprisoned in his hotel room.

The film is 45 minutes long and is... interesting. Honestly it doesn't really work through most of it. I don't think opening it up really worked (not that I'd know since I didn't see the source material).

That said the last 10 or 15 minutes are transcendent and hopeful in a way only Kuby is uniquely capable of expressing, the trouble is that there is 30 minutes of "what is this?" before it. Yes you get to see the great one do his stuff but its so bleak and disjointed. I can recommend it for fans, but others beware... its a Kafka nightmare with a hopeful end...

Two stars, with moments of four star material.

(Yes I am very Happy I purchased a copy, I just wish it were better. Hopefully I will get to see the source show someday- clips are at and play so much better than this film)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sunday Nightcap- Where are the godless films?

Where are the great atheistic films?

How about any good ones?

Okay... where are the even okay films that, as part of the plot, view the world without god or spiritual matters?

I can't find one.

I was planning Unseen Films course for the next bunch of months and I came to the conclusion that there are no great films that are devoid of god. Yes there are films that don’t even broach the subject, or have no notions of a creator or a god as part of the story, but there are no films that I’ve run across that operate with any sort of atheism, where god or the supernatural or spiritual notions don't exist and never existed. (This is different than saying god is absent, uncaring or dead since that would imply a supernaturally constructed universe which I'm trying to avoid all together)

As I said the question came up when I was planning the films for what turned out to be the next six months. I was putting weeks together and thought that I’ve done films about Jesus, the path to enlightenment and other spiritual subjects, but I’ve not done any films that took the opposite view. I figured it was time to go in the other direction so I put on my thinking cap and I tried to come up with a few titles.

I couldn’t come up with one.

I could come up with films about the disinterest or silence of god, but I couldn’t come up with a single narrative film where the lack of god/spirit/karma/destiny was part of the plot. I could come up with a few documentaries that explain atheism and that point of view  but to be honest they are a dull lot and any I've seen end up boring polemics which leave me feeling “You’ve made your point…and what am I supposed to do with this?” after ten minutes.

At this point I should probably say that I’m an agnostic. I can see the absolute validity of both positions of deists and atheists, but at the same time I have problems with both positions…

…but the point of this piece is not to argue for or against any position (even the middle one), only to ponder why there are no (good) films from the atheist point of view. You either have some spiritual mention or none at all (which makes them not suitable for this discussion).

I suspect that the problem is that if you deal with the notion there not being a god or something spiritual or fate you limit yourself. Where do you go with it? What do you do with the plot? How do you have things play out in a story? Say if lovers aren't fated to meet what's the point? If a good man does something bad and doesn't get a karmic comeuppance whats the point? That's not a story   most people are going to want to read/see since that's real life. People don't want real life, or so much real life.

You also run into the problems in that the stories we tell kids tend to be what we want them to aspire to and not they way the world is. You probably shouldn't teach them not to do bad things by telling them that in the real would you may never get caught or that nothing will ever happen to you.

As I said you can make a film that doesn’t have a spiritual aspect at all by never referencing it. But it's difficult You can have one that does. But on a certain level you can’t really do anything with a film that has a lack of spirituality/god as a component. How would you even work that into a plot line? The notion of God and spiritualism is always used to show something greater, there is something more, some higher power, something we are striving for beyond the here and now. I think if you remove that you kind of shrink the box and limit yourself. I’m not saying that’s right but without a god/supernatural you remove fate, destiny, karma and so many other twists and turns that creators use to tell their story. You frequently need some sort of higher power just to tell a story.

In a twisted sort of way the best atheistic take on story telling might be Michael O'Donoghue’s legendary piece on how to tell a good story . He argues in it that all stories should end with the main character getting hit by a truck because life is like that.

I think the closest we’ve come to that is Contact with Jody Foster. Aliens contact us and tell us kind of some of the secrets of the universe. The problem is that things get mucked up with the alien appearing as her father.

The only other film on the subject would be to take Chariots of the Gods to its logical conclusion- the aliens come down and explain that there was so divine intervention it was all them. They say flat out that there is no god and any feelings beyond that are mistakes and misfiring brain chemistry.

Outside of that I'm stumped. I really can't think of a narrative film that is atheistic in the telling. If any of you know of any movies let me know I’d like to take a look.(though I'd prefer good films)

As for documentaries, I’m going to politely take a pass. While I have a desire to see a really good one, I won’t review it here since the odds are any review would have to entail a detailed discussion of the pros cons and uncertainties of all the positions and I don’t want to get into any arguments...I've lost too many friends as a result.

In doing a revision of this piece I suddenly thought of  Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Which has good people getting the short end of the stick and bad guys getting away with it. The trouble is I haven't seen the film in a long time (I don't particularly care for it). For me the uncertainty of including it is whether there is any discussion of god and the random nature of existence in it. and because the film is very much set up to be the bad guys always seem to win.

The trouble for me with the bad guys always win is that any films like it seem to be taking an almost anti spiritual bend to them in that the universe is cold and cruel and will screw you over all the time, which isn't really the case. Yes the universe is dog eat dog, but at the same time you must remember that any morality of it being a bad place is just as questionable moral construct as saying it's all flowers and sunshine. To me there should be a neutral nature to it all.

Pink Force Commandos

Sequel to Golden Queens Commandos is just as action packed, though much more nonsensical.

The plot of the film begins with a band of women surrounded in an isolated farm house. They have stolen a large horde of gold which the military wants back. They decide that some will make a run for it with the gold while others remain behind. Any survivors will meet back at that spot in a years time to split up the money. Things don't go as planned and the story spirals out into three or ten different directions until we get to the final shoot out.

A sequel in that the same cast plays similar characters to Golden Queens Commandos, but with different names. Also not everyone is on the same side, nor does everyone have as large a part. This film is further tied to the first by the use of footage from the first film to give a kind of background on some of the characters (also to signal which character is suppose to be which from the early film since costumes and appearances have changed).

Very good in a psychotronic sort of way, this film has a plot that makes almost no linear sense what so ever. The plot jumps from gold, to diamonds, to a map, to revenge, to about eight other things depending upon the minute. There is almost no continuity to the whys and wherefores things just sort of happen and people just sort of show up. Its never boring, but it does bend your mind since any attempt at making things make sense is a lost cause. Its so demented that even the giving of one's self over to it only barely reduces the damage, this movie is just too weird.

Like the earlier film this film is a mixture of genres, though to be honest this film is basically a western but with other things placed inside it. (I do have to report that this film does have the musical number the first film didn't have) I liked this film, I didn't love it. The problem is that its scatter-shot approach makes it much more difficult to love than the earlier film. This doesn't mean you shouldn't see it, you should, especially if you're a fan of the wild films that have come out of Hong Kong of the years or an action nut who doesn't care if everything makes sense.

7 out of 10

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Golden Queens Commandos(1982)

This film is not high art. This film was never intended to be high art. Its a popcorn movie and as such its scores at the top of the charts.

The plot of this gem has a bunch of women with various criminal skills thrown into prison during World War 2. They escape and proceed to head off to destroy a chemical lab in a well fortified valley.

What begins as a crime film, slips into a women behind bars film, then to a prison escape film, then a World War 2 secret mission film, onward into a western; there are ghosts, a James Bond spoof and everything you can think of except a musical number. This film almost (literally) has it all. And its all just serious enough to be interesting and silly enough to be enjoyable.

And whats a great film without some mind bending moments: the Japanese (I guess) villains all wear Nazi SS uniforms; the women all sport sunglasses and hair styles from the early 1980's, the prison guard tower spotlights are theatrical spotlights, the English dub has one of the girls a Southern belle and several of the men as dundering idiots. There's more, but I'll leave you to find it out.

This is the perfect film for those nights when you're not sure what type of movie you want to see because this is alltypes of movies at once. Its a low brow action film thats just meant to entertain, and thats what it does.

If you like exploitation style action films this is an absolute must see.10 out of 10.

(A "sequel" is Pink Force Commandos which is tomorrows movie)

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Ambassador (2012)

The story of what happened when filmmaker and journalist Mads Brugger bought diplomatic credentials from Liberia and went to the Central African Republic.

One of the problems with doing Unseen Films and having a day job and a life away from the cyber and film worlds is that you can’t see everything you want to. For all the good things that Unseen throws our way we still miss a great number of things we should have caught earlier. For example I should have caught The Ambassador when it played at New Directors New Films because by the time it was done I had so many questions I wanted answered.

As I said at the top the film follows Mads, cigarette holder forever clenched in his teeth, as he buys his way into diplomatic service. The idea is to try and get access to money and diamonds while trying to “build” a match factory. What he gets instead is a bizarre trip down the rabbit hole. Freely throwing around envelopes of happiness, envelops filled with money, he winds his way deeper and deeper into the inner circle of power in the Central African Republic. Things also get weirder and weirder as he finds various people who tell him stories about the real way things are done. How weird? People in the Central African Republic actually think that someone in their right mind would sign a contract that forces them to pay for someone else's expenses forever, for a promise, maybe, some day, they may get diamonds in return.
The film tells a wild story and by the end of it I was full of questions that weren't clearly answered or simply popped into my head.This isn’t to knock the film, oh dear lord no, I only mention it because the film is so rich in characters and incidents that the brief 93 minute running time is horribly too short…

…on the other hand I can’t imagine a longer version of the film simply because to tell it any other way would be to have the film spin out uncontrollably in all sorts of weird directions. The best thing I can say is there was ever a film in desperate need of a commentary track and bonus documentaries this is it. This is a story that bleeds off the screen on the the floor and into your mind.

The fact that the film fills you with questions, and a desire to know more puts this into the elite group of great documentaries. Good documentaries tell you things you never knew. Great ones take it step further and make you want to get involved or know more. The Ambassador makes you want to know more in the right sort of way, it wants you to continue the story, not just to fill out things you were never told.

What is also really clear is that the whole notion of what diplomats do, beyond the main ambassador, really needs to be rethought. I mean the way it looks is that all these guys do is run scams or near scams in the hopes of making a buck.

I wish I had gone to New Directors.Actually I wish I had a chance to sit down with Mads and ask him a steady stream of questions.

If you care about knowing how things are done, really done, you should see this film... on the other hand if you want to see a true story that will amuse the hell out of you see it as well.

Big Miracle (2012)

I did not want to see this film. I was sure it was going to be your stereotypical feel good film that's based on a true incident. I figured it was going to suck. Then I ended up with a DVD and I wanted to clear my head from the NYAFF so I popped it in... know what? it's your stereotypical feel good film based on a true incident. The surprising part is it doesn't suck.

The story in the film is that a reporter doing a human interest story on tacos in a small restaurant in the wilds of Alaska. While in the town he shoots some of the locals goofing around on a snowmobile. In the distance he films plumes of mist coming from the ice. It transpires that that there are three whales strapped in the ice and their only means of breathing is a rapidly freezing ice hole. He files a story and it goes around the world bringing help from all over, including his environmentalist ex-girlfriend played by Drew Barrymore.

If you can't fill in the gaps you really need to see this because you clearly haven't seen enough cliche filled films.

If you can fill in the gaps you should see this film because despite being full of cliches and forced feel good moments the film is actually entertaining.

Yea I know I should probably have my head examined but at the same time some times its nice to see that Hollywood can occasionally turn out something like this.  I mean usually they do cliche feel good really badly. I mean honestly don't you normally want to throw up when you see a film like this?

Why does the film work? I'm guessing the cast which has Barrymore, Ted Danson, Kathy Baker and several other character actor stalwarts lifting the film up by their very presence. I think it also helps that while the story is more or less structured cliche the script creates good characters and has some good dialog.

For what ever reason this is simply a small scale film that shouldn't work but does.... worth a look if not on DVD when it goes into eternal rotation on cable TV.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Unbowed is the next Korean Cultural Service film

Just a quick reminder—Tuesday is Unbowed screening for free at the Tribeca Cinema Tuesday night. No review tonight since a couple of us here at Unseen are planning on going to the screening ourselves.

Here's what the Korean Cultural Service website has to say:

When it opened in late 2011, Unbowed’s uninhabited take on a highly-publicized true story caused such a stir that Korea’s Ministry of Justice and Supreme Court even chimed in, noting its wild inaccuracies. It turns out that sensationalizing the story of university professor who accosts a judge with a crossbow doesn’t go over well with governmental bodies…but thankfully, film fans love it, as this courtroom thriller – buffeted by the media uproar – became one of last year’s biggest Korean hits. AHN Sung-Ke, one of his country’s most respected international actors, delivers a bravado performance as the bow-slinging everyman while R-Point’s Park Won-Sang delivers a one-in-a-lifetime role as the struggling lawyer pushed to save him

As always doors at 630, movie at 7.

Two things starting tomorrow at Lincoln Center: Orientation: A New Arab Cinema and Neighboring Sounds

The Film Society of Lincoln Center is going to run their series of of current Arab cinema. It runs from tomorrow until the 29th.

Last year at Tribeca I saw Cairo Exit. I didn't do a full review however I did say this about it:

Earnest film about a young woman looking to get out from her life in Cairo and not repeat past mistakes. Her sister was pregnant and forced to get married. Her husband is gone and now she has a son she ignores. Her best friend needs to get married so she'll have support but needs to have an operation to look like she is a virgin. Her boyfriend wants to get out of his house and go to Europe where he is sure to make a fortune but isn't sure she should go with him. What happens is the film. I liked the film and admire that it even got made (The producer speaking at the talk after Grandma 1000 Times related the struggle to complete it)but at the same time I didn't love it, partly because the script is uneven, mostly because the performances are uneven. There were scenes where everyone seemed to be in a different version of the same film. Worth a look on cable.

Details on the full series can be found here.

Also Starting tomorrow for a regular theatrical run is Neighboring Sounds which played at New Directors New Films. My thoughts on that film can be found here.

The Samaritan (2012)

Samuel L Jackson gets out of jail for the first time in 25 years. He went up because he killed his partner when a grift they were doing went sideways and it became the only way out.

Deciding to change his life he's contacted by the son of the man he killed. He owns a club and has connections to some really bad guys. Jackson wants nothing to do with the "kid" but the kid has other ideas. He wants Jackson's help on scam and he'll do anything to get it.

I had heard very mixed things about this film. Many people I know really disliked it. several hated the "slow" build up of the first hour. A few other people I know loved the film calling one of the few modern noir films.

Side me with the people who like the film.

Sure the film takes the better part of an hour to set the "scam" in motion, but that's time well spent. Its a film that builds characters, both minor and major, with such skill that everything that happens has weight. We like the good guys and we hate the bad guys. We also get an understanding of why everyone reacts as they do. Nothing seems out of place.

The real joy of the film is the course of the plot. Nothing is stuff we've we've seen before. There are some twists and turns here that I didn't see coming. Even better even as things went down I expected them to lead into things that never happened. I loved how this film had me thinking in all sorts of wrong directions.

I need to mention that if you've seen the trailer forget it. Sure you've seen clips from the film, but the way they are arranged will lead you to think things are different than they are. Three cheers for whom ever cut it.

A solid recommendation from much so I'm going to pick this up on DVD.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pripyat (1999)

Pripyat is the town near Chernobyl. It is the name of the river that flows along side the plant. It is also the name of a documentary about life inside the town and the Zone around the plant.

After the Chernobyl accident the town that was built up around the plant was hastily evacuated. People were loaded on to buses and sent out of dodge. As the crisis was dealt with a 16km exclusionary zone on every side of the plant was set up. No one and nothing was to go in and out of the area unless they were monitored and controlled. Eventually, after as much of the radioactive debris was cleared up, and the damaged reactor was entombed, Soviet officials realized that they needed the power the undamaged reactors could supply so they set up a method by which people would be able to go into the exclusionary zone to run the reactor, monitor the damage and keep out intruders.

Pripyat is the story of life in the exclusionary zone.

Shot in stark black and white with a style that seems akin to a Bela Tarr film, this is a haunting portrait of people who choose to live and work in a place of incredible invisible danger. It seems like what it is, a post apocalyptic world where life some how goes on. Its surreal since in our head we know there is danger, but to our eyes everything looks perfectly normal, if, in some places a tad overgrown.

Why would anyone choose to subject themselves to the danger? For some it’s the money. For others it’s a chance to remain connected to the place they always considered their home. For one couple it is their home, having moved back into the Zone despite being warned of the danger. When we first meet them they tell us they have been their for 12 years. When they moved back they had been warned by experts that they would be dead with in 7.

I am haunted by this film.

I am haunted by the notion of living and working with in a world that seems perfectly fine, but in reality is full of invisible death. While the people living and working near Chernobyl know the risks of what we are doing I’m left to ponder how many of us are doing something similar but are unaware of it thanks to the dangers of modern life such as pollution.

There is much to ponder in the film.

Definitely worth tracking down

Atrocity Exhibition (2001)

I had heard of the film version of JG Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition several years ago but, despite being produced and made in New York, the film is only available from Europe as an import. Perplexed and very curious I put the film on my list of films to get when it was cheap enough. A couple of weeks ago I found a cheap version from an Amazon e-seller and I jumped on it.

Having seen the film, I now completely understand why the film doesn’t have a US release, it’s disturbing. Part of the disturbing nature comes from the inclusion of documentary footage of car crashes, medical procedures, Hiroshima victims and sex. Part of the disturbing nature is the result of the disjointed structure of the film. The combination of the two makes for heady mix that’s best described as midnight movie meets art film.

The conceit of the film is that it’s the footage left behind by a Dr Travis. Travis was a psychologist who enlisted his patients and friends on a film project that was supposed to act as a form of therapy. Who the therapy was ultimately for is unclear, but it’s a look into the mind of a disturbed individual. The film with in a film deals with coming to try and understand the notion of World War 3 with side trips into physical reconstruction, car crashes (Ballard wrote Crash), perversion, art and a few other things.

Sitting in the dark after a long hot Fourth of July I was unprepared for what I saw. The film spins out like a film made by David Cronenberg back when he was churning out horror films about the new flesh. Actually the thought I had was this was the film that Cronenberg might have made in place of Crash had he not had to go through Hollywood.

I don’t know what to say…The film troubled me because it started to get me thinking in odd directions about reality…

For me the film is best during the first half when the film seems less structured and there is a wonderful sense that anything can and will happen. The tensing up of your gut during the first half that comes as you brace for the next body blow is lessened in the second as the punches come less frequently.

I need to start a film series simply to show this and films like it.

I should point out that if you can get the import DVD the disc has two commentary tracks , one by the director and one by JG Ballard, which I’m told is more a discussion of the nature of reality rather than a straight forward commentary.I can’t wait to dive back in.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Revenant (2009)

After Bart is killed in Iraq, his body is returned to the US for burial. When his burial is delayed Bart wakes up in his coffin and climbs out. He then shows up at the door of his best friend Joey. Thinking a terrible mistake has been made, Joey takes Bart to the hospital to get checked out, but the staff freaks out and Bart and Joey flee into the night. It transpires that Bart is a Revenant, weird cross between a vampire and a zombie who must drink human blood to stop decaying. He is otherwise the Bart of old. Struggling to find a means of feeding Bart, the pair stumble upon the idea of taking out the city’s bad guys…but things don’t go as expected and thing rapidly get out of hand.

The one question I had when The Revenant had ended was why has it taken almost 3 years for this film to get off the festival circuit and end up with a regular release? I’m guessing the mix of horror and comedy in a kind of action buddy movie confounded studio execs. I mean what exactly is this film? I also expect that the really dark tone and heartbreaking nature of some of the twists make the film a hard sell to people who want just gore and violence. I mean here is a film that is ultimately genuinely about the characters and not about the gore or the violence or anything most “horror” fans gravitate toward, It’s nominally a horror movie but there are no scares, though there are chills.

The second question I had when the movie was done was how long was I going to have to wait for the DVD?

This movie, with the exception of three burps, is one of the best “horror” films of the year.

This film was not what I expected. I don’t think the film is really what anyone expects going in since it spins out in a logical way (more or less) that isn’t your typical horror movie way. Horror is the wrong genreto put it in because other than dealing with an undead lead, the film is ultimately a buddy film/ drama. It doesn't care about the horror as such. It’s a film that concerns the characters dealing with this wild situation and then turning it. You feel for the characters and as things turn black at the end you really feel sad for everyone involved. The emotion is there because the characters are there. When there is a hiccup toward the end of the film the problems it creates mostly come from the fact that some of what happen is really out of character.

Let me pause here and talk about the hiccups in the film. There are three and they are three small blemishes on another wise wonderful film.

The first blemish is the music can be a bit over bearing. It’s not terrible, but it’s occasionally very intrusive and insistent about the direction it wants to pull the film in. The opening title sequence at Bart’s funeral for example it’s a bit too obvious in going for a mood.

The second blip is the small section between the death of Bart until his appearance on Joey’s doorstep. It all plays like bad inde comedy. I groaned at the prospect of this being what the whole film was going to be like. Thankfully it’s not.( Do listen carefully about the story about the grenade which is low and in the background)

The final blip comes toward the end of the film. It’s the later part of the subway sequence from the point people get on the subway to its end. Not only is it out of character for Bart, it’s also a tad too much. Thankfully the film does recover from it and it comes up with a great ending, but for a while there it was in doubt.

What isn’t in doubt is that this is a great film. It’s a film that goes in unexpected ways. While I know you’ll catch some of the twists, I don’t think you’ll catch them all as things that happen early in the film have consequence later on. There were a few things that hadn’t occurred to me and yet were perfectly logical.

Yes, the film is funny. The interplay between Joey and Bart is exactly the way friends act around each other. Their reaction to each other and  their one liners are really funny. And even many of the excellent gross out effects are played for laughs.

A word of warning :while there isn’t a great deal of gore you need to know that if you don’t like blood and gore and vomit (a sick black goo) you may want to steer clear of this because it might turn your stomach. These are some of the best effects I’ve seen in a very long time and they are all the more disturbing as a result.

Rarely, if ever do you see a film as complex as this with in the horror genre, it simply doesn’t happen. Horror films are about the scares and The Revenant is not. It’s not even about the laughs, it’s about the people.

What really surprised me was how you grow to care about the characters. The film, which is effectively devoid of monsters and scares, is all about the characters. You care about how the friends come together (“Why didn’t we do this when you were alive?”) and deal with the women in their lives. You feel bad for Janet- Bart’s girlfriend- not only because the situation is no win, but also because it becomes clear really fast Bart may love her, but despite the kind words, was never going to marry her even when he was alive.

I really like this film a great deal.

I really need to see this film again. Normally I would say something to the effect that I don’t want to tell you too much about a film for fear of ruining it, however in the case of this film I need to see the film again because I know I didn’t catch all that is going on. Yes the basic story is good and if you just watch it on a popcorn level its fine, but there is more going on. Even on the most basic of levels I didn’t catch how everything in the in the film ties together. I know that there were stray lines at the start that will add to things are the end that I didn’t register because they didn’t seem important.

If I could I’d wait until I saw this again before I reviewed it but right now that’s not an option. Right now I need to you run out and see this film when it opens in limited release Friday. Go see this film. Let go of all your expectations and just go see this film. If you can let the film be what it is on its own terms I think you’ll find you’ll be pleasantly surprised

Return of the Musketeers (1989)

C Thomas Howell joins, Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finley and Richard Chamberlain in what turned out to be Roy Kinnear's final film (he was thrown from a horse), another go round with the Four Musketeers. In many ways it's old home week as several actors from the 1974 films return for more swashbuckling mayhem.

The plot has the musketeers dispatched to rescue King Charles from the clutches of Oliver Cromwell by the Queen of France (a returning Geraldine Chaplin). They are hampered by an evil Kim Catrell and her father Christopher Lee (returning somehow from the earlier films despite being killed off)

High art doesn't enter into it... or low art for that matter. This is simply Richard Lester getting the band back together for another go round. I'm sure in theory it sounded good but in execution it didn't really work with Richard Chamberlain in it only fleetingly and Kinnear's death putting a cloud over everything. Kinnear was supposed to be in this more but he died early on with the result his character mostly disappears or appears only from behind.

When I first saw this film in the 1990's I was disappointed. It was a weak sequel to two classic films. I kind of liked it in a its better than nothing way. Then back around 4th of the July I saw it again. Stripped of any pretense I simply watched it and while it would never win an award, it was a blast in a mindless sort of way. Its a bunch of old guys revisiting past glories and having a good time. They have a good time and I had I good time.

No, it's not the equal of the previous films nor should it be watched in close succession to them, but divorced of the earlier films this film is great way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Avengers (2012)

Yea I know this is hardly Unseen. Hell it's one of the most seen films on the planet ever. So why am I writing it up?

Because it didn't disappoint me.

You're probably puzzled by that statement, but yes I am writing the film up because when I finally sat down to watch the film ,I wasn't disappointed. Not only that the film surprised me and moved me to tears despite the fact that I knew or could guess almost every twist and turn.

I really liked this movie.

Is it the best of the year? I don't think so. I have issues with it, but it is one hell of a good time.

The plot picks up not long after Thor and Captain America. Loki is after the cosmic cube (or whatever it's called in the film) so that he can use it to create a portal so an invading army of aliens can come and lay waste to earth. Nick Fury brings together all of the heroes in order to stop the invasion.

You know how it's going to go and you really don't care. We've got great characters saying great things and kicking serious ass, need I say more?

Okay, this whiny man has problems with the film. The film plays like LOTR Return of the King, basically being a film you won't fully get unless you've seen all of the previous Marvel movies in the sequence (Iron Man 1&2, Captain America and especially Thor). The film also leaves out a great many points that should have at least been mentioned in passing (as many others were) such as where the hell is War Machine? Minor points to be sure, but the sort of things that kept me from completely wetting myself over the film...

...that said the film does have several touching moments, and the  one liners made me laugh harder than most comedies I've seen this year. Hulk's line to Loki. putting him in his place had me on the verge of literally falling out of my chair.

Put me on the band wagon of being a big fan of the film.

If you haven't seen it, go.
If you have go again.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunday Nightcap August 19 Festivals Future and Past. Plus Riff Trax

A few random pieces before some links….

In the near future we’re going to start a weekly column listing upcoming film events. If you’ve got a festival and a series coming up you’ll be able to send it our way and we’ll put it up. Being a New York City-centric blog I suspect that we’ll be running lots things aimed in New York, but we’ll take anything you think we should promote. The post will be up probably the second week in September. I would start it earlier except that Randi, our handy dandy researcher, and soon to be the gate keeper for the calendar is in the middle of some things she has to dig her way out of. There is a specific email for contacting us with info If you want us to send us information send it there and we'll see about including it.

Speaking of upcoming events the New York Film Festival is coming soon. They have announced their Opening, Closing, Centerpiece and Main Slate films and all I have to say is that I haven’t seen that many films I’m excited about… which considering the way that most of the other film festivals this year have shaken out means that it should be full of great surprises. Seriously I went into Tribeca, New York Asian Film Festival and a few others with low expectations because I didn’t know the films and in each case came out smiling widely at the hidden gems I discovered. Right now the only film I’m looking forward to is Hyde Park on the Hudson with Bill Murray. The rest are cyphers.

On the other hand they still haven’t announced the films off the main slate which is where I usually find the things that really tickle my fancy. Keep reading and watching because there is hopefully going to be a ton of coverage of the festival.

I'm going to say something here I probably shouldn't. I thought long and hard about this over the last couple of days and I was prepared to let it go, but I find I'm still annoyed. I didn’t want to say anything because I don’t want to burn bridges or hurt feelings, but I really need to publicly ask the people behind a recent New York City film festival to pull themselves together and get better organized. I’ve had four run-ins with the festival this year and outside of a long email chat with the head of the festival (who is charming) I didn’t have a particularly fun time.

I’m not going to go into what happen but if you’re curious why there has been no coverage of the festival after a couple of posts announcing its approach it’s because of...well, things. Let’s just say that it started even before I showed up for the film that was canceled and it continued after that.

As far as things go, I’m happy that they had sell outs and things went well, but unless I get a sense they pulled it together next year (and I do hope they are back next year) I’m going to stay away.

On a happier note, John, Bully, Randi and myself went to the RiffTrax Live simulcast Thursday night of Manos: The Hands of Fate. The film really is horrible, but Mike, Bill and Kevin made it watchable. We had a great time… as did a good number of you all since it appears that a number of you were either at the Regal Cinema in Union Square or elsewhere in the country.

(And remember 10/25 is the next one- Bird-emic and tickets are on sale)

And now some links:

My Neighbor Leon

go down the rabbit hole with Strange Things on Google Earth

Guillermo Del Toro interview

Other films hidden in Criterion edition.

Did 12 Angry Men get it wrong?

And as Unseen Films heads into the final six months of its third year I should tell you that coming up the next two weeks will be some random titles. This week is some recent stuff I just saw in the last few weeks, while the week after are some films I really think are really special.

Also look for some reviews of new releases in the next couple of weeks since we have been getting to press screenings...

Lastly I wish to welcome home to one of our Unseen crew as he comes back from vacation...and I need to wish another of our number a truly wonderful time on vacation.

As for me I never sleep, and I never stop. My vacation is sitting in a darkened theater watching movies I'm hoping are good enough to throw your way...

Have a great week boys and girls and I'll see you all next time...

Man on the Roof (1976)

Man on the Roof was the point at which I consciously was aware that foreign films could be more than Bergman and Fellini and Herzog. It was a moment where the wide spectrum of films out side of the US snapped into my brain. Yes, I knew that there were dubbed films from other lands, but as much as I liked them, I viewed them as disposable (now they are indispensable) and that the only films that mattered were the “art” films of the great directors.

Yes, I was reading way too many high brow film books at the time. Never mind that I was watching everything, the great stuff was the great filmmakers, which is of course horseshit.

Man on the Roof shook me from that. That was the point where I kicked down the barriers and got off my high horse. Finally all films were good, all films had value. My brief stay in the snob cabinet was done.

This is not to say that Man on the Roof is a bad film, or a lesser film, or anything. Its simply to say that it’s a great film that came from some one who wasn’t a recognized god of cinema.

Yes Man on the Roof is a great thriller and crime drama.

Based on one of Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck novels (they are the source of  The Laughing Policeman which starred Walter Matthau as well as numerous European films and TV series) Man on the Roof tells the story of a police investigation into the shooting of one of their own in a hospital bed. On the face of it he was a good cop and good guy but one they start looking into his background they realize that this good guy was a bad man and set in motion a disturbed individual who becomes the title character

A taut procedural the film is largely the hunt for the killer. It’s the sort of film that will have you shifting in your seat as you wait for it to play out. One of the joys of the film for me was the sense that anything could happen and that no one was safe. People get hurt and die. I know that had I been familiar with the Beck series of novels I might not of have feared for the lead character, I mean he stars in a series of books so he can’t die, but even having seen the film a good 10 or 12 times over the last 30 years I still tense up and I still worry about who is going to get shot this time.(unsurprisingly its always the same people)

I love this film. On some level it’s not a great work of cinema, but it is a damn good thriller. Its also a damn important film in my movie education.

See this film.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

David Cronenberg and his Cosmopolis (2012) at Lincoln Center (SPOILERS)

My immediate reaction to the film  was a desire to leap to my feet and scream at the director "You can't be serious!!!!!!!" in my best John McEnroe voice, but I found I just didn't have it in me to get the tone and inflection right, so I let it go. I quickly found out that, yes Cronenberg is very serious about the film, lifting all of the dialog directly from Don DeLillo's novel. But as much as he talked about what works on the page not always working on the screen (One character's diary was completely removed for that reason) he never realized that DeLillo's perfectly crafted dialog sounds(the wrong sort of)  laughable when actually said aloud.

But I'm starting in the middle yet again...

Last night after the 630 showing of Cosmopolis David Cronenberg was going to sit down for a Q&A so I got myself a ticket and went. I figured what better way to see the film than with the man himself there. Ten minutes in I was ready to congratulate him on finally making the comedy he talked about last year at the New Yorker Festival, but I was ready to go McEnroe on him.

The film concerns Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), an uber rich kid who has made billions and just married an old money girl. Disillusioned and trying unsuccessfully to corner one of the currency markets, he heads off to get his hair cut on the other side of Manhattan just as the President comes to town and anarchists begin wandering the street. During the very long trip people talk, have sex, die and our hero has a six minute prostate exam while trying to pick up a woman.(Cronenberg said he told Pattinson that when he gets his prostate checked and if it should last more than a couple of seconds, assume your doctor is in love with you)

Its a strange film filled with deep meaningful dialog about deep meaningful subjects. After Cronenberg had read the book he pulled out all of the dialog and used it for the script. The trouble is that no one, no one talks like this, not for an entire day and not with everyone they meet. Flowery and meaningful doesn't describe half of it...pretentious twaddle does.

Understand, I like the discussion, I love the intelligence, but it's unconnected to real people, even movie real people so it all comes out as a polemic of spiritual exploration instead of a comedy.

Yes the film is funny. Much of it is intentional, the weird refrain of "I have an asymmetrical prostate" brought more and more laughter each time it was intoned. The bizarreness of the whole situation is damn funny at times and I got several good belly laughs from the film.

The film is also funny frequently for all the wrong reasons. Blame Cronenberg who seems to have followed what by all accounts is a novel with a touch of mystical dream logic too closely. People come and go randomly. Events just transpire almost on a whim. The setting, Packer's limo, travels through a city that is so fake and artificial as to seem to be the work of a hack director. At no point does the film have any connection to a New York City that I've ever run across on any level, and I can accept that, but the street scenes are so ludicrous that even even the worst TV show you've ever run across would have reshot them.

(And I won't go into the awful green screen compositing that makes the film so unbelievable and unreal that I for one never bought any of it for an instant.)

Do I dare even discuss the story progression, which has Packer's life going farther and farther down hill, until a moment when something happens that was so unexpected and so out of left field that the people around me chattered that they never saw it coming (and that it woke a couple of them up). Why Packer does what he does is anyone's guess. I'm guessing it, it worked in the novel, but here it comes across as an effort to wake the snoozing audience (no really people around me were sleeping) and to move things into the tragic final third. After the WTF moment the film then twists and turns in a couple of different ways, with a couple that make no sense before there is long talk between two characters that lasts roughly 25 minutes (That's Cronenberg's timing).

What happens is kind of foreshadowed, but at the same time it really makes no sense.This isn't a whole journey, but unconnected moments from it with the result that nothing matters. Any grand revelations are lost because there are no whole characters only ideas.

I love the ideas. I do. I love the intelligent discussions about life, the universe and everything but that's all there is. There are no real people here... well maybe Packer kind of is one in the end and so is Benno, but their climatic discussion needs a better first 75 minute for it to have any real emotional power. I felt nothing except contempt and boredom and a desire to see Paul Giamatti and Robert Pattinson go at it in a film with a better set up (and yes Pattinson is really good and holds his own and then some with Giamatti)

To be honest I can't fathom most of the raves I've read for the film. What are they responding to? Have they read the book and thus know more about the characters? They must have because the film feels like it's only part of a story not the whole thing. On the other hand, while I don't hate the film, I completely understand the foul words that have been thrown it's way.

The film is a mess.Its a bold brave attempt but it really misses the mark.

After the film Croneberg came out and talked for a bit. Interviewed by Richard Pena of the Film Society of Lincoln Center he came off a man well at ease with public speaking. He also seemed a tad rehearsed with some of the answers sounding stock since he said similar things when I saw him a couple times last year with A Dangerous Method.

He talked about being brought in on the project by a producer who gave him the book at Cannes. He talked about how after he finished the book how he started pulling the dialog from the book to see if it would work as a screenplay. He spoke of the casting, which he said was done in part because of the visa requirements for shooting in Toronto. He spoke a great deal about Pattinson, who was hesitant to take the role and who's uncertainty worked well in the film.

Cronenberg stated that he was finding that the audiences seemed to be getting the film and what he was doing, even the Twilight fans. He indicated (in response to an audience question) that the film was made with an audience in mind, but was also made because he wanted to make it. It had to please him first.

Cronenberg's discussion of the music, it was done with Howard Shore in conjunction with the group Metric was, by his telling the first time that he had been asked that but I've read a couple things on the film where he had discussed it.

There was also a discussion about shooting in a confined space and how keeping much of the film in the limo made the film work better for him.

Cronenberg was asked about what it was about him and his films having people having sex in cars. Cronenberg repeated his line that it was the only place he could have sex before retelling some stories about the making of Crash including the one about Ted Turner not wanting to release Crash since it might promote kids to have sex in cars.

It was a good talk, but nothing special. Cronenberg was clearly on and utterly charming. I just wish I he could have shown me the wonder in this very messy movie.

Russian Roulette (1975)

There was a time when George Segal was not primarily known as being a comedy regular on TV. Back in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s Segal was an action star. He was (and is) an actor of incredible versatility with the ability to play anything that came his way. If you want proof consider that Segal more than held his own against Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Somewhere along the line Segal decided to have fun and he moved away from serious roles into sit-com. While the move has kept Segal a constant on TV, its kind of a let down for those of us who miss his more serious work and action roles.

Back in 1975 Segal starred as a Canadian Mountie on leave for punching out his boss in Russian Roulette. Segal’s character was resigned to sitting things out when he’s assigned to baby sit a Russian émigré during an important state visit. It’s a simple job, and as simple jobs of this sort go, it goes horribly wrong, his charge escapes and looks to be heading off to kill the Soviet Premier who is in Canada. Of course there is way more going on with a far reaching conspiracy in motion, and there is only one person who can stop the plot…

I fell in love with this film back in the late 70’s and early 80’s when it was a staple of late HBO scheduling. I’d stay up or get up at all hours in an effort to see it. By the time I had a VCR the film played less frequently and I was reduced to copying it off a commercial station on an  over night screening (I later transferred the film to DVD commercials intact).

The film is a solid B action film that plays very much like Andrew Davis’ The Package with Gene Hackman. I mean that as compliment to Russian Roulette and an ever slight knock to the package since it’s clear from watching the films in reasonably close succession that Davis probably saw the earlier film and stole some of its street sense style. This is the sort of perfect film to pop on on a rainy day with a bowl of popcorn and beverage of choice.

This is one of those films that’s fallen off the face of the earth. Most people I know have never heard of the film and even my sources for hard to find films don’t have it. This needs to get on DVD, since while it may not be a great film its entertaining ass all hell.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Asterix at the Olympic Games (2008)

Again, with the blazing speed and timeliness of Usain Bolt crossing the finish line, I bring you a review of a motion picture about the Olympics—this time 2008's Asterix at the Olympic Games. There's been three live-action Asterix films (with a fourth to follow next year); this is the third and by far the weakest, but there's still a lot of fun to be had with the timeless comic strip creations of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. This one's loosely based on the twelfth book in the series, and was released to coincide with the 2008 Beijing Olympics. What better time then, than to review it...the week after the Olympics. I'm so sorry.

The plot's relatively simple: Asterix (Clovis Cornillac) and Obelix (the brilliantly cast Gérard Depardieu) battle Romans (and the rest of the Roman Empire) in the Grecian Olympic Games. It departs from the previous pair in the live-action Asterix series by creating a mostly-new script that incorporates rather than spotlights the original comic strip plot. It looks great: CGI and effects clearly benefited from a pricey €78 million budget, and there's great care taken to preserve the look and feel of the comic strips:

The movie adds a romantic subplot not present in the comics: the Gaul Lovesix has fallen in love with Irina, a Princess of Greece, played by the easy-on-the-eyes supermodel Vanessa Hessler.

Each of the live-action Asterix films has courted the dad audience by spotlighting an actress who is, to use the official motion picture industry technical term, babe-alicious: supermodel Laetitia Casta in Asterix & Obelix Take On Caesar and French model and actress Louise Bourgoin in 2013's Asterix & Obelix: On Her Majesty's Service (not to mention Catherine Deneuve as the Queen of England). And then, of course, there's the sight of Monica Belluci as Cleopatra in Asterix: Mission Cleopatra. Why, let's look at that sight now!

Don't worry, ladies, there's something in the movie for you too:

Okay, whenever you're ready, let's go back to Asterix at the Olympic Games. Take your time.

Critically panned but strong in European box offices, the film preserves many of the visual gags, dialogue puns, and epic visuals of the comic strip. It depends on a primary knowledge of the series' characters and the situation (well known throughout Europe), but an American audience unfamiliar with Asterix will find the plot easy to pick up.

Irina has been promised as a bride to the winning sportsman of the Olympics, so Lovesix (accompanied by his fellow Gauls) enters the competition, but Julius Caesar's jealous son Brutus (Benoît Poelvoord) plans to cheat his way to a victory. It's here the movie makes a misstep. Brutus is portrayed as a dishonorable buffoon—not as the wily but honorable warrior of the comic strip. Every minute the bumbling slapstick Brutus is on screen is a minute spent wishing Asterix and Obelix were back in the scene.

The whole Brutus/Lovefix/Irina subplot was created by the screenwriters for the movie, but its risk is in deviating too widely from the already sharp and well-timed comedy and adventure of the original comic strips. Ignoring the sharp pacing and plot rhythms of scripter Goscinny comes at a price—many Asterix aficionados consider the most recent Asterix strips, written by Uderzo following Goscinny's death, decidedly inferior to the rest of the series.

Not that you can't adapt an Asterix story fairly straight. I'm quite fond of Asterix: Mission Cleopatra, which is a mostly faithful and accurate adaptation in plot, dialogue, and visuals from its original source. Asterix at the Olympic Games could have benefited from the same treatment. The film runs two full hours, and shaving thirty minutes from it would have helped. Most of the third act, actually, which seems to last forever, could have been trimmed, not to mention a subplot of Brutus continually trying to murder Julius Caesar and failing each time with slapstick results. The ending of the film could have been trimmed severely too: it goes on longer than an entire village of hobbits jumping on a bed.

But all this is nitpicking. It's an Asterix movie, sacre bleu, and it has no other grand pretensions than to entertain, which it does in spades. The CGI work on the sporting action and the gorgeous vistas is impressive, and Clovis Cornillac (new to the role of Asterix) convincingly portrays the plucky little Gaul, and Gérard Depardieu is, again, exceptionally funny as Obelix. There's a lot of fun sports cameos (race car champion Michael Schumacher pops up as an Olympic charioteer), and prominent French actor Alain Delon plays Julius Caesar as straight as if he were doing Shakespeare's version.

So, the judge's final score cards are up, and while it's not a gold medal for Asterix at the Olympic Games, it's certainly a great deal of fun: light and inoffensive, enjoyable by both kids and adults, and an ideal introduction to one of the finest all-ages graphic novel series ever produced.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Black Windmill (1974)

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Michael Caine, and when you like Michael Caine, you're got a lot of movies to get through—especially during the 1980s, where it was apparently in his contract to appear in every single motion picture produced. But in between Caine's iconic, top work (Hannah and Her Sisters, The Italian Job, Little Voice, Alfie, The Cider House Rules) and the apparently "in it for the paycheck" movies (Jaws: The Revenge, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, The Island, Water), there's a solid body of Caine films that are not classics but are definitely overlooked and underappreciated. One of my top faves in this Caine-category is 1974's The Black Windmill, critically dismissed on release, but featuring an intricate plot and a sharp performance by Caine as a grim, determined antihero and a plot of double, triple, and quadruple crosses. It's a solid, if subdued, thriller ahead of its time.

In the middle of his mission to infiltrate a Northern Ireland arms deal, MI6 agent John Tarrant's young son is kidnapped. When the kidnappers' ransom is a jewelry cache already set aside for another MI6 operation, Tarrant suspects a mole within his department. Now he's got to stay one step ahead of not only the kidnapper and the arms dealer but also a rogue agent working against him within the government—and perhaps all three are the same man. This definitely is not a spy movie you can watch while doing a crossword puzzle: the plot intertwines and wraps around itself like Tarrant backtracking his steps to throw his pursuers off the trail, including his former comrades who believe he may have orchestrated the kidnapping himself. The chase is on—with a maximum of real-world grim London and English countryside scenery and a lack of ballistic pyrotechnic explosions.

(Well, except for that one.)

The Black Windmill's closest cousins are the intensely detailed and real-world-flavored espionage novels of John LeCarré and Len Deighton (upon whose books the Harry Palmer movies were based). More so than many of the spy films of its time, Windmill stands up sturdily to a viewing today. It should be considered alongside films like The Russia House, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Constant Gardener: thrillers that intelligently balances intellect and action.

Ironically, what keeps this from being one of Caine's most impressive work is Caine himself. He turns in a decent performance, impressively grim and unstoppable—at times, emotionally unreadable—he's the antecedent to Liam Neeson's unstoppable Bryan Mills in Taken. The film's at a disadvantage with this interpretation and portrayal, however: we're told to feel empathy and side with Tarrant, but he shows none of it himself, and despite the tension, there's little surprise. Director Don Siegel moves the players about competently if a bit stiffly, as if on a chessboard. His films include the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry, so Siegel's low-toned approach to Windmill combined with Tarrant's stoicism produce a film in which there's very little shock. The spare but effective soundtrack is by Roy Budd, who earlier wrote the innovative score for Michael Caine's iconic Get Carter, a more violent, driving, high-stakes movie, leaving the obvious question: would The Black Windmill have become a classic rather than just a solid film had Carter director Mike Hodges done the duties? Perhaps The Black Windmill could have benefited from a touch less cool Caine and a wee dash of hysteria about blowing the bloody doors off. Still, you can't fault Michael Caine for playing Michael Caine, and if this spy thriller lacks the wit and surprise of The Ipcress File, well, a lesser Michael Caine thriller is still a fine thrill ride. Hold on tight and mind the doors.

Painted Skin Resurrection (2012)

Xun Zhou, who was dynamite in The Equation of Life and Death, is a Fox spirit looking for hearts (both romantically and for food) in Painted Skin The Resurrection. More an action romance  rather than anything else (it certainly isn’t a horror film), this is spectacular film that will benefit from being seen on the big screen when it opens for a limited US release tomorrow (8/17). 

The plot of the film has the Fox being freed from her icy prison by a bird spirit. The pair then goes off causing mischief and eating human hearts along the way. They eventually run across the Princess Jing, who is traveling country to find the object of her affection, a soldier who years earlier was unable to stop a bear from disfiguring her. Fox takes the position of handmaiden to the princess and soon there is a romantic triangle forming between the two women and the warrior. Meanwhile the bird spirit finds romance with a slight inept demon hunter…as followers of a necromancer begin to take steps to restore their prince who’s heart was eaten by the Fox.

If that isn’t a perfect reiteration of the plot you’ll have to forgive me because the film isn’t completely interested in plot. The film is more interested in providing spectacle and dealing with the emotion of the romance, with the Fox and Jing changing bodies so that they can experience the things they feel they are lacking- love.

As a romance the film is quite good. Yes, it’s pure soap opera, but the cast hits the right notes and you feel the longing by all the parties. By the time there is a declaration and demonstration by the warrior that he will love Jing for what’s inside (that’s not a spoiler trust me) the non-stone hearted members of the audience have been reduced to mush.

The real strength of the film are the incredible spectacle and action sequences. A computer enhanced throw back in many ways to the wire work epics of the 1970’s there are several amazing action sequences. For example the first meeting of the Fox and the disguised Jing is a wonderful set piece off and on horseback as Jing tries to save what she thinks is a kidnapped girl from a bandit. Later on the huge assault on the fortress lead by feral man-beasts is the sort of thing that makes you go "oh wow repeatedly". Both pieces are a fanciful blending of real people on wires and computer manipulated images. The result are sequences that are fantastic in the truest sense of the word. The visuals are amazing and, as I said at the top the sort of thing you’ll want to make an effort to see on a big screen.

The strength is also the weakness with director Wuershan, who was previously responsible for the messy The Butcher, The Cook and the Swordsman, choosing to accentuate the set pieces instead a cohesive plot and thus taking a toll on the overall film. The sequences are wonderful, but the fact that the they don’t always link up the way they should makes the film seem almost like an overlong long highlight reel. It doesn’t kill the film but it makes what should have been a great film simply a good one. I suspect that the focusing on the set pieces was a necessary evil since in the second half of the film the sheer number of characters and plot threads threatens to break the film into a million pieces.

I like Painted Skin Resurrection and wish I had gotten to see it on a huge screen where the epic quality of the film could really have dazzled my eye. (I'm hoping to see the film again during it's New York run over the weekend)

I should point out that this is a kind of sequel to 2008’s Painted Skin which starred Donnie Yen, as a man caught in a love triangle where one part is the Fox spirit (Xun Zhou again). You do not need to know anything about the earlier film which is only referenced here. I should point out that several actors carried over from the first film but not Donnie Yen.

I should also point out thatthe film is currently number one at the box office in China.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The London Nobody Knows (1967)

A glimpse at the off-the-beaten-track of England's capital city in the late 1960s, The London Nobody Knows (1967), stands in stark contrast to the international glamorous image of London as a center of innovation and art in the Swinging Sixties. Narrator James Mason—dapper and serious, wielding an umbrella—wanders through the crumbling relics of abandoned, once-grand theaters, speaks to the poor and indigent at a Salvation Army hostel, and takes us into the Holborn public lavatory that once boasted live goldfish in tanks to look at while urinating. "These fish don't live here now, of course," Mason comments off-handedly, gesturing with his brolly. "We just popped them in by way of illustration."

For a Londonphile like me, this film is both glorious and affecting, bringing on the immense sadness of lost treasures of history, culture, and architecture. So much in this film is grey, bleak and muted, an apt description of London even twenty-five years after the end of the war. This is a London still trying desperately to climb out of the post-war starkness; Mason surveys the vast blocks of uninspired 1960s flats and office buildings, leaving behind much of which was unique and precious to the city. He takes us through Camden Town, its quiet grey streets not yet filled with the bustling international crowds and festival-oriented flavor, into street markets where sellers lyrically hawk their wares, down the Thames to an egg-breaking plant (accompanied by a funny, fanciful skit of workers breaking eggs with everything from a steamroller to explosives), to the buskers and performers of the day (a taunting street-corner escape artist is a delight), long before they were licensed and relegated to a small designated section of an Underground passageway.

Hindsight gives us an even sharper and more poignant view of London in this film. We now live a twenty-first century where even the red telephone box is disappearing from the streets, and many of the venerable institutions Mason walks through are now defunct or teetering. He shows us London's famous markets in full hectic rush; a recent 2012 BBC series of documentaries, The London Markets, show the grand old traditions of guild membership and apprenticeships falling to the weighside by new laws and regulations. A visit to the alleyways haunted by Jack the Ripper shows streets as-yet-unmodernized with novelty tourist pubs and many competiting "official" walking tours. Mason steps into a grocer's in the Jewish East End of London and optimistically narrates "The Marx [Marks?] family have had a thriving business here for a hundred years, ad I wouldn't mind betting that they'll be here for another hundred." But I can't find online any sign of the shop still existing. The approach of large international chains—of McDonald's, Waterstones, Tesco's—is still in the future.

Scripted by Geoffrey Fletcher (based on his book), directed by Norman Cohen, The London Nobody Knows is both a celebration of this era's London and a memorial for the people and the culture of the grand old city. "All of these bits and pieces meant something once upon a time," says Mason. "They are what you might call the crumbling images of a past. But we'd be foolish to mourn them too readily." Without irony, James Mason remarks that many of the new buildings being put up on the sites of destroyed sites will themselves become wrecks and prime for destruction one day. (And so they have.) When I step into today's London, gone are the Wimpy Bars and milk bars of the '50s and '60s. You can no longer fiddle a lengthy journey on the Tube by using a cheap ticket at the beginning and showing your in-zone pass at the end. The Barbican Center, freshly built and controversial in the early 1980s, has now mostly faded to a dull afterthought with the departure of the Royal Shakespeare Company from its premises. Tube cars were clean when I was there in the '80s, then graffiti-covered in the '90s, and now clean again. Much of the decay of the docklands and East End has been replaced with luxury flats and trendy businesses, and an Olympic Stadium burying so much beneath it. My local pub, the White Hart in Paddington, closed in 2005, bringing on an infinite sadness when I first saw it shuttered.

I love the tourist areas of London: bustling Covent Garden, trendy Knightsbridge, beautiful Bloomsbury. But even more I love wandering on the quiet side streets away from the busy crowds, looking at the architecture and the people, spotting remnants of a London past in a faded ghost sign on a building or an amusing sculptured detail hidden half-away by age. That is, I think, an added value of The London Nobody Knows—it's not merely a fine and affecting documentary, it's a reminder to discover and to treasure those moments of delights off the beaten path—that not all of a city's life is outlined in a Fodor's travel guidebook.