Sunday, June 2, 2013

THE ABCs OF DEATH

Anthology films are notoriously dodgy.  Even the best of them usually has at least one bad segment.  In fact, I can't think of a single one where every segment is good, and that is out of an average four.  Now, imagine what the average of success in an anthology film with twenty six segments must be.  That's THE ABCs OF DEATH for you.

Spearheaded by Alamo Drafthouse/Drafthouse films head Tim League and cult film exhibitor/distributor Ant Timpson, the concept behind THE ABCs OF DEATH is a pretty fun one.  They gathered together twenty six up and coming genre directors from all over the world, assigned each of them a letter of the alphabet and let them loose.  The directors, with no guidance and afforded complete creative control, then had to come up with a word that begins with the letter they were given and put together a short film relating to that word on the subject of death.


The results vary wildly in every way, from quality to taste, this very truly is a mixed bag.  The very nature of this film, everybody throws everything at the wall and sees what sticks, pretty much dictates that it would have to be.  When you have twenty six almost entirely antonymous productions going on at once to create a single whole, there is just no possibility for any sort of consistency or quality control, though I assume that is a part of the film's intended charm.

A couple of them are pretty fantastic and a whole lot of fun, though I wouldn't say any are truly great.  A couple are cutesy and fun.  More of them are mediocre and several are flat out bad.  There are also a hand full of the shorts that are incredibly well made little films, but have such disgusting or disturbing content, that I can't in good-faith say that I enjoyed them at all.  Call me a wuss, as I'm sure some of you who've seen the film would be likely to do, but I just don't need to see some of this stuff (and yes, I know that there is way worse stuff out there).  There are also the big losers of the experiment, short films that are tasteless, disgusting and horribly made.  I will say this, though; I believe that all the film makers involved were really going for it.  Even the ones I hated felt like they were being made from a place of sincere cinematic passion.

I don't want to break down any of the films, or tell you which ones I liked and which ones I didn't, because I think the fun of this movie is almost entirely dependent upon trying to guess the word that the directors chose as well as experiencing some pretty bizarre and unexpected stuff.  Some of them are pretty clear, others will leave you guessing until the film's title reveal (there is a brief title card after every short).  There is definitely a lot of creativity on the part of almost all of the film makers in this regard.

No, this isn't a great film by any means.  It is a fun way to spend an evening, though (in some ways.  Again, by nature of the film having no over all tone, some of them would be great to watch with a group of friends, some of them would be absolutely mortifying to watch with another living being in the room).  I do recommend this one, but it is NOT for the weak in constitution or easily offended or disturbed.  There is some really, truly, very sick stuff in this movie (and I really mean that.  It isn't rated, but if it were it would easily receive an NC-17).  So, if you're my sister or my mom or something, please do not watch this and say I didn't warn you.  Thanks.


I'll leave you with a list of all the directors:

Bruno Forzani
Helene Cattet
Kaare Andrews
Angela Bettis
Adrian Bogliano
Jason Eisner
Ernesto Diaz Espinoza
Xavier Gens
Noboru Iguchi
Thomas Malling
Jorge Michael Grau
Anders Morgenthaler
Yoshihiro Nishimura
Jbanjong Pisanthanakun
Simon Rumley
Marcel Sarmiento
Jon Schnepp
Srdjan Spasojevic
Timo Tjahjanto
Andrew Traucki
Nacho Vigalondo
Jake West
Ti West
Ben Wheatley
Adam Wingard
Yudai Yamaguchi

Friday, May 31, 2013

THE LAST STAND

I keep starting and scraping this review over and over again.  Three whole times now!  You see, writing these things tends to be a big process for me (maybe that's why I have to take a year between articles).  I have to stop every two minutes to reread what I've written, and then I have to take a cigarette break every five.  Then I have to pace around for a little while, smoke another cigarette, come back and read what I've written, delete everything and start over.  Each review faces its own little challenges, in the case of this one the problem is that I want to want to write it way more than I actually want to write it.

You see, when this movie came out it seemed the universal critical opinion was that it wasn't as bad as anyone thought it was going to be.  I guess I just had unreasonably high expectations, for whatever reason, because I was expecting - nay, I knew - that I was going to love it.  And I didn't.  I just didn't.

Don't get me wrong here, it's aaight, but it just was not what I was hoping for from the American debut of director Kim Jee-Woon and the triumphant return of Arnold Schwarzenegger.


The premise is great.  Former L.A. super-cop Arnold Schwarzenegger is now living the quiet life as the Sheriff in a sleepy little border town in southern Arizona.  Nothing much ever happens there so Arnold can just kick back and go to the diner or sit on his front porch.  With a character like this you'd normally have one of two types of conflict: he misses the sweet action in L.A. or he's done with all that and just wants to be left alone.  Neither of these is the case here and I really like that.  He's happy with his new low key life, but when trouble starts a brewing he doesn't need to think twice about taking care of it.  This pretty much means he has no character arc, but whatever, who cares?

Meanwhile, somewhere up north there is a super-ultra-top-secret prisoner transportation going on headed up by Special Agent Forest Whitaker at his most ridiculously Forest-Whitakery.  A villainous cartel boss (played by Eduardo Noriega) is being moved to death row.  BUT HE ESCAPES.  Now here's the thing, they can't catch him because in addition to being a cartel boss he is also a racecar driver and he has a super car that goes two hundred miles per hour.  He's heading for Mexico and his route will take him right through Arnold's town.  Guess what happens then (SPOILERS: a bunch of cars get shot)!

The cast is pretty great here, easily the best thing the movie has going for it (which is saying something when you're talking about a movie directed by Kim Jee-Woon).  Now, I'm not a man of politics, and I'm in no way making any kind of statement here, but I will say that novelty of Arnold Schwarzenegger holding a major office quickly wore off once it hit me that he wouldn't be making any movies for a long, long time if ever again.  But he's back (see what I did there?) and I like to think we're all better for it.  He's particularly wooden here, even for him, but he's always been a guy that got by on his own personal charms rather than any kind of character work.  He speaks almost entirely in one liners, most of which are terrible, but he's really going for the gusto and every once in a while (like say one out of every fifteen) a line hits and it's magical.


As I already mentioned, Forest Whitaker is out of hand here.  He's doing what feels like his own version of Nicolas Cage's Mega-Acting.  He's chewing the scenery like he hasn't eaten since THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND.  Noriega is a fun, 90s style action movie villain.  Zach Gilford and Luis Guzman play the wacky, semi-inept deputies with hearts made of the bravest gold.  Jaimie Alexander plays the serious deputy, also with a heart made of the bravest gold.  Rodrigo Santoro plays the war veteran turned town drunk who, obviously, also has a heart made of the bravest gold.  Johnny Knoxville plays a mentally challenged (I'm assuming) weapons enthusiast.

Billy Blair.  Just look at this guy.
Noriega's hench-men are also a rare sort, headed up by Peter Stormare, they got some of the weirdest looking dudes imaginable for this.  Special shout out has to go to Billy Blair for being the most 90s looking villain of all time (including the 90s).  Harry Dean Stanton also has a small role which I like to imagine is a reprisal of his character from THE AVENGERS.

Now that I've gotten all the positivity out of the way, I guess it's time for me to talk about why this movie didn't really work for me.  The simple reason is that it just kind of sucks.

I can't even begin to tell you how thrilled I was when I realized that this movie revolved around a drug kingpin with a super car.  That is the kind of thing that causes excitement aneurisms.  Too bad it hits you about an hour into the movie that absolutley nothing has happened other than this guy driving his fast car in the middle of nowhere.  Seriously, most of this movie is a slog.  The only thing that even comes close to saving it is Whitaker's wild annunciations and gesticulations, but even that gets old when its contained to a darkened control room and he's playing off a bunch of actors who couldn't even dream of matching his energy.

Most disappointing of all, when the action finally gets going it is extremely underwhelming.  Kim is a great action director.  Everything going on is clear and comprehensible, the camera doesn't shake unnecessarily, shots are held long enough, the cuts are effective, the geography is sound.  These technical fundamentals are all well and good, and really pretty necessary, but how much does that really matter when nothing that exciting is going on?  The main reason I was excited for this movie in the first place was that Kim's previous action movie, THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD, is so damn good.  Its action sequences are clever, inventive, exciting and have a grand sense of adventure and fun.  Not to say that THE LAST STAND is over serious or anything like that, it isn't serious at all, fun was definitely the desired tone, but everything is so bland.  It's just missing the spark.  You can only watch someone fire a gun and then cut to a parked car being hit with bullets so many times before it starts to get old.  When people get shot, any impact that should be there is killed by illusion busting bursts of CG blood, or even stranger mists of CG blood.  Now, I might very well be wrong here, and I'm not trying to be a smart ass, I'm really not sure and I'm quite possibly wrong, but I'm pretty sure that when people get shot it doesn't cause a hazy cloud of blood mist.  But it happens in this movie a lot.

Not all the action is dull, there are a couple good moments.  Luis Guzman has a fun badass reveal.  The final confrontation between Schwarzenegger and Noriega, a one on one, hand to hand knock down drag out, is actually really great.   And, for my money the very best part of the movie, Schwarzenegger storming at a rooftop sniper causing them both to tumble over the edge while Arnold shoots him midair is what action movies are all about.  Too bad that's only about five seconds of the movie.

So, yeah, this one was a little bit of a let down, but it definitely could have been worse.  I do expect more from everybody next time.

Friday, May 24, 2013

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO

As I mentioned briefly in my last article, I hurt my back last week.  I wasn't doing anything crazy, just slightly bending over to open a drawer, but the pain was truly something fierce.  I found myself almost completely immobile and laid out on pretty heavy (well, heavy for me any way) pain medication.  It is in these times that we require a certain kind of movie.  Something with grand adventure, big ideas and sweeping emotions but still pleasantly slow paced and deliberate, maybe even meditative.  Something to watch during the breaks in my absurd DAWSON'S CREEK binge (don't worry, a DAWSON'S CREEK article is forthcoming).  Thinking about it now, I probably should have watched THE TREE OF LIFE, but I didn't.  Instead I went to a film that's been sitting unwatched on my shelf for the last two years just waiting for an opportunity like this.  Hayao Miyazaki's NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND.

This ended up being the perfect choice.  It really hit the spot.  I mean, just look at that poster, is it not almost entirely evocative of the kind of movie I described above?  It tells the story of Nausicaä, a really great princess, trying to make the world better for her people, and all people in general, in a post apocalyptic world ravaged by giant monsters called Warrior Gods a thousand years earlier, now terrorized by poisonous plants, giant bugs and fascist armies.  While it is definitely an action film, Nausicaä's goal isn't to vanquish her enemies.  She's trying to find a way that all factions can live together in peace and harmony and the earth can be restored to a healthy, thriving, green place again. 

One thing that really stuck out about it to me is that Nausicaä is a great, empowering and empowered, brave, proactive, strong willed and smart young female character and the movie never feels the need to point that out to you.  It doesn't feel like Miyazaki set out to create a great female character, but just a great character period.  This, even as an almost thirty year old movie, comes across as really refreshing as apposed to something like BRAVE, which while clearly well intentioned, is almost telling us that its princess, Merida, is great despite being a girl rather than just great (and I get that Brave is more of a movie about the relationships between Mothers and Daughters, something I think it did extremely well, rather than being about female empowerment, but that was obviously a strong theme and the one that Disney chose to push the most.)

I could probably keep going on and on about this, but I'll have to save the full NAUSICAÄ review for another time.  The point that I'm getting at is that I was all zonked on pills and this movie really hit me in a good way.  We always want more of a good thing, so I knew I had to go further down the Miyazaki rabbit hole.  I didn't have any more in my collection so I turned to Amazon, and almost like a gift from the divine, it just so happened that all his movies were on sale as a deal of the day.  Disney has been releasing beautiful editions of his films on Blu-ray over the past couple years and I took this sale as an opportunity to catch up on the ones I've missed.  Just this last week they released two more HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (which I have yet to watch) and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO.

I came home last night after a long day of Biotechnology and Rock 'n' Roll to a dark, quiet apartment.  My wife was fast asleep, so I took this chance to have some dinner, dim the lights and have a date with MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO.


The opening credits get this movie off to a really rocky start.  Characters march across the screen on a back ground that is a pretty hideous shade of yellow as clip-arty looking spiders, bats and bugs that look like they'd be on a sheet of Halloween stickers you'd find in the dollar section of Target line the borders and occasionally shake around while a particularly unpleasant in its pleasantness song plays.  It feels like something you'd see in a kids show on PBS or in elementary school or at some weird kids house in the late eighties or early nineties and know you're in for some trouble.  I was kind of dreading what I'd gotten myself into, but it was all for naught as everything was up hill from there.

The story (and I use the word story fairly lightly) is about two little girls, Satsuki and Mei, ages ten and four, who move with their Father to a decrepit old house in the country to be near the hospital where their Mother is being treated for an illness that's never disclosed to the audience.  The two girls spend their time running around, screaming like maniacs and exploring their new house and surrounding country side.  The magic begins when they discover that the place is haunted (though innocuously so) by sentient dust, and things only escalate from there.

One day, while Satsuki is at school, Mei is running around like a maniac when she notices a couple little bunny looking, teddy-bearish kitty guys and, in a very ALICE IN WONDERLAND-esque sequence, follows them down a hole in a tree where she meets a giant bunny looking, teddy-bearish kitty guy named Totoro.  We find out, through the girls' Father, that Totoro is a great spirit of the forest and any one who he allows to see him must be incredibly lucky and very special.  From this point on Totoro appears to break up both the monotony and tragedy in the girls' lives.  From a melancholy scene in which they wait for their Father at a remote bus stop in the pouring down rain until Totoro shows up for a ride on a truly horrifying, but pretty awesome cat with twelve legs that is also a bus, to a much more light-hearted scene where he makes some acorns grow through a ritualistic dance and some physical effort in which his face looks like he's having a particularly rough bowel movement.

Thomas, my special Totoro
I really like Totoro because he reminds me of my cat, Thomas.  He's a great big, friendly sweetheart, good for hugging.  Kind of a naughty jerk, but in a well intentioned, fun loving way.  His presence can be comforting and exciting and he brings joy to every life he touches.  But he can also do some stuff that even Thomas can't, like the aforementioned ability to make plants grow, the ability to fly and the skill to play an ocarina.

The encounters with Totoro, however, are few and far between.  The true heart of the film, and what the bulk of the running time is spent on, is about just being a kid, and Miyazaki presents it in such a great, honest and natural way.  Satsuki and Mei really do feel like children, they aren't the hyper-articulate, rude, sarcastic, shitty little mini-adults we'd see if this film were made today by a company like Dreamworks.  There are great touches that are so authentically child like it's hard to not find them endearing.  The way Mei tails Satsuki at all times, copies her every move and mimics her every word.  Not because she's a little dick, but because she wants to be just like her older sister.  She genuinely idolizes and adores her and it's so palpable.  The way Kanta, a boy who lives near by and clearly has a crush on Satsuki, will only speak to her in whines and groans and the way Satsuki doesn't understand that.  A scene in which Mei shows up at Satsuki's school and all of her classmates are inexplicably excited at the prospect of someone's sibling being there unexpectedly.

In its own way it's a coming of age story about children who aren't old enough to come to age yet, but in a way that many kids are forced to anyway.  How children deal with tragedy, in this case a parent's illness and the prospect of their death, when they are just flat out not equipped for it.  I think the majority of children have to go through something comparable to this at some point, life is cruel and nature doesn't care how old you are, and it's nice to see a movie deal with it in a way that is both real and subtle (despite there being a ten foot tall bunny looking, teddy-bearish kitty guy lurking around every corner), it doesn't wallow in the drama or sadness.  It manages to be fairly light while dealing with a pretty heavy subject without minimizing it.


The movie is beautiful.  It's wonderfully animated, the world feels real and well thought out and the character design is excellent.  The kids are cute and Totoro and his buddies are appealing in a very base, inherent way in the vein of Mickey Mouse.  It's no wonder that stuffed Totoros sell so well, hell, I kinda want one.  The Blu-ray transfer looks pretty stunning to me, though I have no frame of reference to make a comparison with previous releases (the last time I saw this movie was when it came out on VHS in America for the first time in 1993 and I don't remember it very well.  I do know I saw it with my little sister and we were roughly the same ages as the kids in the movie, which I don't think registered at the time, but it makes me feel good to think about now.) 

Because I'm a cretin, I watched the dubbed version of the movie.  All things considered, for a dub I think it was pretty well done.  They did a fairly remarkable job of making the voices match the character's mouth movements.  Satsuki and Mei are voiced by Dakota and Elle Fanning, who I think do a pretty stellar job.  Tim Daly is the Dad, which means he sounds like Superman, but its fitting.

Obviously I liked this one, but in case you're still wondering for some reason, I can't recommend it enough.  One of my favorite things in the movie, but something I couldn't find a place for anywhere else in the article is this really awesome Japanese synth jam, so I'll just leave with that:




Thursday, May 23, 2013

Shout Out Louds w/ Haerts at the Great American Music Hall.


SHOUT OUT LOUDS
with Haerts

May 22, 2013
Great American Music Hall
San Francisco,  CA


I really loved the first two Shout Out Louds records quite a bit.  I didn't feel quite the same about the two that followed.  When They announced a show in San Francisco I was interested but I knew I probably wouldn't end up going.

But then about a month ago I fell instantly in love with a song called "Wings" by a band called Haerts.



It's a simple but beautiful new (nü?) New Wave jam.  A very familiar beat with an emotionally manipulative melody and extremely effective achy country inflected, Stevie Nicks-esque vocals.  The band is something of a mystery, "Wings" is apparently the only song that's available by them anywhere (possibly the only song they've recorded?!  I just don't know).  Even live performance videos on Youtube seem to only be of this song.
(A second song called "All The Days" is now available, as of this morning)

When I realized that Haerts was opening for Shout Out Louds (I always want to say or write THE Shout Out Louds, but apparently it's just Shout Out Louds.  Or maybe it's like how the Pixies are officially just Pixies but everybody, including the members of the band, say the Pixies), the promise of getting to hear "Wings" live alongside a handful of my old Shout Out Louds favorites was enough to convince me to buy a ticket.

The show was set to start at eight.  I got to the Great American Music Hall at seven fifty and walked right up to the stage.  To say that the venue was even a quarter filled would be pretty generous.  Haerts came out at eight o'clock on the spot, at first I thought they looked a bit disappointed that the crowd was so thin, but as the show progressed I came to the conclusion that they might all just have a kind of perma-bewildered look on their faces.

None of the members of the band look like they belong in a band together,  though they don't clash or look
foolish next to each other either.  They are all fairly nondescript guys with minimal stage presence, with the exception of the front woman who the internet tells me is named Nini Fabi.  This seems to be by design, as all the focus is squarely put onto her.  While the majority of the band remains anonymous in jeans and t-shirts, Fabi dons a kimono.  Which was fitting, as she moves like a ghost from Kwaidan or Kureneko.

She's mostly still as though entranced or busy entrancing.  Each rare move precise, intentional and dramatically purposeful.

As much as I love "Wings", I have to admit I was a bit worried about what the rest of the songs would be like.  "Wings" has been floating around for over six months, and with music consumption the way it is today, that seems like an abnormally long time for a band to release it's debut single with out even a hint of more material.  It seemed entirely possible to me that this was their only good song and they knew it.  I was totally wrong!

All of the songs have a similar tone to "Wings".  All of them are airy and dreamy, even the faster, up tempo numbers (which seemed to be the majority).  They kind of sound like Alphaville fronted by Stevie Nicks.  There was only one song, a dirge like crawl, that didn't grab me, but it was made all the more tolerable by Fabi shaking around a ridiculous strand of iron bells.  I also think it may be the kind of song that I'd like a lot more if I was given the opportunity to become familiar with it on record.

The band plays well together, they're tight and the rhythms are driving.  There is some definite Wizard of Oz shit going on with the backing tracks.  Fabi was undoubtedly singing live most of the time, but there are moments where she is clearly 'enhanced'.  At least once I noticed that she stopped singing before a particularly flawless vocal was finished.  It could be intended as effect as it is most obvious during choruses and other big vocal moments, and either way I didn't find it distracting in the least.  Also, not to slander anyone here on the internet, but she plays the keyboard intermittently and I'm not entirely positive that she was ever actually playing .

Overall I was extremely impressed with Haerts.  I'm looking forward to the chance of seeing them again and even more so to hearing their eventual album.  The feeling they gave me reminded me of the feeling that discovering the Shout Out Louds gave me when I was 20.  Similarly to the Shout Out Louds, I don't really expect any of my friends to end up giving a damn about them, but I won't be surprised if they end up striking a chord with people.

I hurt my back last week and this was my first big excursion back into the real world.  After Haerts played I was aching and tired, so I went home.  I did not see Shout Out Louds, though I'm sure they were fun.  I imagine they played "The Comeback" and everybody had a great time!


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

CUJO

I feel bad about writing negative reviews.  I have posted three reviews here so far, two have been negative and I am about to make it three.  I don't feel great about this, but it is my duty to be honest about my feelings for Cujo.

This movie has kind of a reputation with people of a certain age group, let's say about twenty five to thirty five year olds.  That margin may be too big, but I like to leave things open.  This was the kind of movie that as a kid you never saw, but you knew someone who saw it or someone who's older brother saw it or whatever.  It's a horrifying movie about this dog who gets rabies, flips out and then goes totally berserk.  Just running around killing everybody, supping upon their flesh to satiate the needs created within him by the disease.  Its blood lust equaled only by its hatred for the living.  A dog you thought you could trust taken by evil, hell bent on destruction and revenge upon every one and every thing it can lock its foaming jaws onto.  A dog named Cujo.

The thing is, CUJO is totally not about that at all. 

CUJO is about the unstable nature of the modern family.  A husband who works too much, a cheating wife and a total wiener of a kid.  Meanwhile, there is an inexplicable B story about a Saint Bernard (Cujo) slowly succumbing the effects of rabies after being bitten by a bat that even more inexplicably becomes the A story for the already arduously boring film's inexplicably arduously boring climax (a climax that takes up about a third of the films running time, though what comes before it feels like it's been going (and going nowhere) for about four hours).

Now, please don't get me wrong, I normally love a film about domestic strife, but that has to rely on solid performances.  Dee Wallace (Stone) and Daniel Hugh-Kelly, as the wife and husband respectively, do not bring it here.  Wallace blandly phones it in as the film's unlikable, unsympathetic 'hero' (I guess maybe protagonist is the better word), and Hugh-Kelly is just kind of there, bringing not a single ounce of charm to what should have been a relatable character.

As for the killer dog stuff, who knows what the hell was going on there.  I think maybe the dog suffering with rabies until it eventually loses control and becomes dangerous is supposed to symbolize a deteriorating marriage, if that is the case, however, it wasn't made clear in any way.  In fact, there is nothing to suggest that at all, I just made it up because I can't think of any other reason to justify this killer dog movie having a killer dog in it.  There just isn't enough killer dog stuff to say it's a killer dog for the sake of a killer dog, that just isn't what the movie is about.   Maybe Stephen King's novel has more nuance to it, but as far as the movie goes you can't try to turn a story about a troubled marriage into a killer dog story if there is no reason for a killer dog to be there.

TOP TWO MOST AWESOME PARTS OF CUJO

2.  Dee Wallace, thinking she's finally escaped the treachery of Cujo, gloatingly yells "Fuck you dog!" at him as she drives away.

1.  Cujo attacks a big fat guy who responds by yelling "I DON'T GIVE A SHIT!!!" at the dog.


Monday, February 7, 2011

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS

Look! This one plays a violin!
I can appreciate cars.  I like that I can get in a car and go someplace far away in a reasonable amount of time, and I'm glad that I don't have to saddle and mount my steed every time I want to go to the store, work, etc.  I don't get people who are really into cars, though.  I think if I was going to be really into any kind of machinery it would be robots.  I mean, come on, a robot can drive a car for you!  Robots are a million times better than cars!  And hey, sometimes robots ARE cars (Knightrider, Transformers, etc)!  But robots are barely the point here.  The real point is that these guys who are fetishistically into cars just make no sense to me.  I can't help but see a car as anything more than a tool to get from point A to point B.  And to be fair, I should mention that I feel the same way about pretty much all modes of transportation.  Planes, trains, all of that.  I can certainly acknowledge that they are great innovations that make my life infinitely easier and the engineering behind them is shockingly impressive to say the least, but as a hobby or (in the case of the kind of guys this movie depicts) a lifestyle?  I don't see it.

I'm not trying to say anyone is necessarily wrong for being a car guy, and sorry for being redundant here, I just don't get it.  I think in the late 90s these street racer type guys who are really into souped up exported cars were probably kind of badasses.  Driving around, flippin' Johnny Law the bird, having their illegal rallies and what not.  It was kind of a genuine sort of outlaw thing, and I really do see the romance and appeal in that lifestyle.  But then 2001 rolls around and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS is the film that launched a thousand douche bags (I'd like to make it clear that this movie launched many, many more than a thousand douche bags, I was just using a recognizable phrase to spice this piece up).  I bet those guys I was talking about earlier in this paragraph hate this God damn movie.

This movie comes out and you have all these crumby, rich doofuses deciding they are really into cars now, buying these absurdly expensive vehicles and probably spending absurd amounts of money to get all these dumb modification that the genuine street racing guys probably did for themselves on the (relative) cheap once upon a time.  These guys completely lacking any sort of discretion when it came to racing and gathering, etc.  I bet these guys really ruined the scene, and all because of this stupid movie.  How this thing became a taste maker of any kind I'll never understand.

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS is about Brian O'Connor (the reasonably good looking yet entirely charmless Paul Walker), a cop who goes undercover in the street racing scene in order to catch some guys who are robbing DVD players (or something) out of moving big rigs on the freeways of southern California.  He's able to infiltrate what is apparently the sweetest street racing gang around after he saves its leader, Dominic Toretto (the incredibly charming, yet largely useless Vin Diesel), from being caught by the fuzz after an illegal race is busted up.  After developing a bond with the gang, including a romance with Dominic's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster, THE FACULTY, WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON), Brian has to decide where his loyalties lie.  I made this sound vastly more interesting than it actually is, by the way.  We never actually see Brian conflicted, which I'm pretty sure is due to the fact that Paul Walker is about as expressive as this emoticon: :|

the FAST friends!
I seriously don't get what I am supposed to be rooting for with this guy.  Do I want him to do the right thing and turn in the criminals?  Or do I want him to let the guy get away just because?  I mean, I get that I'm supposed to like Dominic, but the thing is I don't like Dominic, I like Vin Diesel.  Dominic, just like every other character in this movie, is pretty much a non entity.  The guy is a criminal in my opinion, but I think I'm supposed to feel sympathy for him because he went to prison for beating a guys face in with a wrench because the dude accidentally crashed into his dad during a race.  That is just a huge asshole thing to do and it certainly doesn't make me see this guy in a different light, even though he is apparently sorry for doing it because the guy has to take the bus now or whatever (sorry if my explanation seems convoluted there, you can blame director Rob Cohen and his crack writing team for that). The film doesn't really spend a lot of time establishing a relationship between Brian and Dominic, the ending just expects you to believe that these characters have some sort of inexplicable brotherly love for each other.  It's as though Cohen was like "ah, everyone's seen Point Break so they know what's supposed to be going on here, I don't have to actually develop any characters or anything".

The boys of POINT BREAK
You know, when I started writing this I swore to myself that I was not going to bring up POINT BREAK.  It's just far too obvious and it's been said a trillion times over by everyone on the internet ever.  It'd be like if I were writing about AVATAR and brought up DANCES WITH WOLVES, but the thing is that those two movies just tap into something incredibly archetypal, so even though the similarities are striking, they are in my opinion acceptable.  But in this case, man, it is just unavoidable, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS is just a cheap ripoff of POINT BREAK that assumes you've seen POINT BREAK.

I think the main thing that really bums me out about this movie is that it is touted as Vin Diesel's break out role, but it actually more seems like it's the role that's killed his career.  For guy's like us (you and me), Vin's real break out came a year earlier when he played Riddick, the John Carpenter style 'most dangerous criminal ever turned anti-hero' in PITCH BLACK.  Even though no one saw PITCH BLACK, it seemed like the sky was going to be the limit for this guy, he could be the next Kurt Russel.  He followed that up with THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, which while it was of course insanely popular, guys like us (you and me) saw it as a minor misstep.  But as it turns out it wasn't really a misstep, it seems more like PITCH BLACK being good was a misstep.  Everything since THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, with the exception of the insanely fun Schwarzenegger style XXX and the not all that good, but respectable and interesting foray into something different, FIND ME GUILTY, has been either terrible or entirely ignored unless the word FAST was somewhere in the title. 

I feel bad for the guy, I know he has big aspirations, but whenever he actually gets one of his passion projects made they always turn out to be overly ambitious messes (THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, BABYLON A.D.).  It seems like the only way he can be successful is by doing dumb, broad shit like THE PACIFIER or sequels that he doesn't seem interested in (FAST AND FURIOUS, the upcoming FAST FIVE and XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE).

It seems like over the last ten or fifteen years we've had a real lack of action stars.  This is not a new revelation I've come up with on my own, of course, but I think it's something that bears repeating.  This is not to say that there haven't been any good action movies, just no ACTION STARS that stand out like a Schwarzenegger or Stallone.  Not in the west anyway.  Guys like Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson showed all the promise in the world and then blew it by making movies that just weren't any fun or (especially in Johnson's case) veered toward "family friendly material" (read: vapid, broad garbage i.e. TOOTH FAIRY).  Then there were guys like Michael Jai White who never really even got a chance.  Jason Statham's heart is in the right place, but for every CRANK there are five CRANK 2s, if you know what I mean.  Now these guys are starting to become the elder statesmen, I was shocked to learn that Diesel is pushing forty five (though, I think I was maybe more shocked to realize that I'm pushing thirty, the past ten years have gone by so damn fast), they never even took off themselves and it seems like the next generation of action stars is non-existent and everything is falling back in the hands of guys like Stallone, who is well into his sixties.

I guess my overarching point here is that Gen X action guys blew it, Gen Y action guys are going to blow it and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS isn't very good.

Friday, February 4, 2011

辣手神探 HARD BOILED


I remember sitting in a movie theater some time in 1997, getting ready to see SPAWN or something and a trailer for THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS runs before the movie.  I'll never forget the audience lighting up with laughter as the narrator said "International action star Chow Yun-Fat".  No one had heard of this guy.  Even the people I was with made comments about how he had a funny name.  They just didn't get it, but I did.  I had seen HARD BOILED.

As a kid I lived in an apartment that was right next door to an old movie theater that played independent, foreign and repertory programming.  I saw many things there, Disney revivals, animation festivals, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, TETSUO THE IRON MAN, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.  I saw the LION KING there eleven times.  But none of these stood out to me in the same way as HARD BOILED (except for maybe THE WRONG TROUSERS, but that is probably the most important film of our time).

It was 1996, I was twelve years old.  RUMBLE IN THE BRONX had just hit America and I had Jackie Chan fever.  Someone told me that if I liked Jackie Chan I was going to LOVE John Woo.  It was like Jackie Chan times a million they told me.  HARD BOILED was going to be playing that weekend and I pretty much had to see this for myself.  Now, for those of you who are familiar with both the films of Jackie Chan and John Woo, you're probably thinking a couple things right now.  First of all, you're probably thinking that whoever told me that Jackie Chan and John Woo are anything alike is probably a) sort of racist and b) kind of dumb, and I really don't have an argument against those points, but I've always had a hard time faulting the guy.  If it weren't for him I probably would have gone through high school without having ever seen HARD BOILED.  The other thing you're likely thinking is that I was in for a surprise.

TOTALLY THE SAME GUY!
And I tottally was!  I went in expecting a fun filled, slapsticky kung fu romp, because John Woo is totally like Jackie Chan!  The thing is HARD BOILED doesn't mess around.  There is certainly some outrageous action going on, and plenty of things that will make you laugh.  Unlike Jackie's films, however, you aren't laughing at the physical comedy, you're laughing at how absurdly awesome everything is.  Also, there is no kung fu, or any other martial arts for that matter.

The opening of this movie is a calm, cool scene in which we're introduced to our hero and titular character, Tequila the Hard Boiled cop (Chow Yun-Fat, the coolest guy in the entire world).  It's not entirely clear, I'd like to point out, whether or not his name is actually Tequila or if it's a nick name or what?  His boss sometimes calls him Yuen, but I don't know whether or not that is his first name or if his name is Tequila Yuen.  Right from the get go we see him drinking what I assume is tequila, so maybe he's just named after his favorite drink or maybe it's his favorite drink because that's his name.  I just don't know.  Anyway, the movie opens with Tequila taking a drink at an establishment aptly named "Jazz Bar" before he sits in with the band and jams with them on the clarinet.  So, we know a few things about him, he likes to drink, he likes jazz, he's a musician and because he's played by Chow we know he's completely awesome and entirely cool.

Then we jump right into the first action scene.  From a story telling perspective this scene is kind of hard to follow, but as far as action film making goes, watching it couldn't be more intuitive.  It takes place in an old tea house, there are bird cages every where.  The whole atmosphere is incredibly strong, and I'd say it's mainly because of the bird cages.  They are hanging from the ceiling, sitting on the tables and people are walking around with them, there is kind of an ambient chatter of birds.  Tequila and his partner are sitting at a table, seemingly enjoying cups of tea and conversation, but they are actually spying on some gangsters across the way.  A rival gang member comes and opens fire, Tequila smashes the bird cage on his table and pulls two hand guns from its base and a huge fire fight that would be the climax of any other action film erupts.  And it would be a really, really good climax, too.  I think something like thirty guys must get shot in this scene.  This scene also introduces us to the logic of the action in this film, our hero can be shot several times and it's cool, guns can and will be hidden any where that would be dramatic to pull them out of and absolutely anything in the set can and will be used to the service of the action.

The film's story, which is flimsy at best, is about Tequila teaming up with undercover cop Alan (Tony Leung, HAPPY TOGETHER, HERO, INFERNAL AFFAIRS.  IMDB lists this character's name as Tony, but I'm pretty sure I never noticed him being called Tony in the movie.  I guess there is a possibility that Alan was his undercover name and his real name is Tony, but if that is the case I'm either pretty dumb or it wasn't made very clear, and I'm leaning toward the later).  Together they have to face some tough issues like being a cop and being an undercover cop, living on a boat, making origami cranes, doing the right thing, etc.  They also have to go to a hospital and kill about two hundred bad guys and Tequila has to run away from explosions while shooting gangsters and jump out a second story window, all while holding a baby.

In most movies with action sequences of this scope there is a sort of winking at the camera, a kind of shame felt by the auteur.  They feel the need to let us know that they know it's ridiculous, sort of a 'hey! we're laughing at it too!' kind of feel.  A recent example of this is SHOOT 'EM UP (which pays tribute to HARD BOILED through the use of a baby in almost every action scene), which is entirely based around fantastic, huge, absurd action sequences, all of which it seems to be embarrassed by.  That is not John Woo at all.  Yes, the action is larger than life, over the top and ridiculous, but it's also surprisingly classy, well filmed, beautifully choreographed and presented with complete seriousness and, most importantly in my opinion, sincerity.  It's interesting to hear John Woo talk about approaching choreography like he would a dance, he claims to be a good dancer and based on his action sequences I completely believe him.

I'm very happy I was able to see this at a young age.  I think it kind of broadened my horizons in many ways.  I feel like a large part of why I'm able to watch action films and expect some sort of heart, craft and sincerity comes from this film, not to mention that I think this was the first subtitled Asian film I'd seen.  While the main thing I've retained from HARD BOILED is a love for the language of action, I can't discredit the lessons I learned about male bonding and friendship, so on that note I'd like to leave you with a picture:

Chow, Tony, John