THEY ATE DANNY'S BRAIN!!!
Movie Review: The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

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THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975)

Directed by: John Huston, based on a story by Rudyard Kipling 

Starring: Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Saeed Jaffrey

An adventure flick based on a Rudyard Kipling story starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine and directed by John Huston. How could you NOT want to see this?? 

The story: While working one night at the offices of the Northern Star newspaper in India, correspondent Rudyard Kipling(Christopher Plummer) is visited one night by a wreck of a man who claims to know him. The disfigured, maimed fellow turns out to be Peachy Carnehan(Michael Caine), an acquaintance, former British soldier and fellow freemason whom he had last seen years before. Carnehan then starts telling Kipling about the events which led to his sorry state, first recounting how him and Kipling initially met, and about his partner in crime Daniel Dravot(Sean Connery). Carnehan and Dravot were both former British soldiers who decided to find fame and fortune outside Her Majesty’s service, and with Kipling’s help had planned to find that fame and fortune on the faraway nation of Kafiristan(a province of present-day Afghanistan). Carnehan and Dravot’s plan was to smuggle weapons into Kafiristan and pledge service to one of the local warlords. They’d train the warlord’s soldiers with the more modern weapons and tactics of the British army and then slowly conquer each enemy fiefdom one by one until they had unified the country under one rule, then bump off the ruler and take the crown themselves and become rich men in the process.

This was an ambitious plan, to be sure, but surprisingly achievable. After many adventures getting to Kafiristan, Carnehan and Dravot find their warlord and pledge themselves to him, and in the process have the good fortune of meeting Billy Fish(Saaed Jaffrey), a former Gurkha who eagerly pledges allegiance to them and serves as an interpreter. It’s not too long until Carnehan and Dravot are conquering villages left and right, and becoming rich and powerful in the process. However, something quite unexpected happens to them: after a fortuitous misunderstanding during one of the battles, Dravot actually starts getting worshipped as a god by the natives, who start calling him by the name Sikander. It turns out that Sikander is actually Alexander The Great, who had conquered Kafiristan millennia before, and Dravot is seen as his son and second coming. This leads to Dravot quite literally becoming king. Cue hubris. 

John Huston is no stranger to stories of adventurous men letting their ambition destroy them, as he was the director of the classic story of greed and downfall, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre, and the experience serves him well to direct a hell of a fun movie. Filming was done on-location in Morocco, and Huston lovingly shoots the natural beauty of the country and its people to give the film an ancient, almost magical aesthetic. The movie has some great setpieces, but it’s not an all-out adventure romp Indiana Jones-style. Instead, the meat of the adventure is the interaction between the main players and the situations they get embroiled in. The plot also has a lot of humor, both intentional and subversive. The film doesn’t whitewash any of the original novella’s patently racist and elitist attitude. Kipling wrote of British characters who were superior to the “savages” they conquered, and that’s exactly the attitude the characters in the movie have. it’d be offensive, if their antiquated attitudes weren’t hilarious by modern standards.

Mentioning that Sean Connery and Michael Caine rocked their roles is a redundant exercise, but it bears mentioning that it’s a treat to see them play off each other, and they really do give the impression of being life-long partners and friends. They’re cocky, charming and full of swagger, it’s a joy to see them in action. Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish is also very likeable, and hilarious in how much of a subservient go-getter he is(again, the British conquering the “savages”). Christopher Plummer, though not having much screen time, is great at portraying Kipling himself, amused at Carnehan and Dravot’s bravado but also deeply concerned that they’re biting off more than the can chew with their endeavor. 

The Man Who Would Be King is a fun-as-hell old school adventure flick, and its charming lead actors and masterful direction by Huston have quite deservedly made it a classic. Highly recommended.

Movie Review + Essay: Flash Point (2007)

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FLASH POINT (Dou Fo Sin in Cantonese, 2007)

Directed by: Wilson Yip

Starring: Donnie Yen, Louis Koo, Collin Chou, Xing Yu, Ray Lui, Fan Bing-Bing

Before I go on to the review, I want to do a teeny tiny essay to give it a foundation, so bare with me. 

The martial arts genre in film has a very curious place when it comes to criticism. The definition of what a good martial arts movie is actually places things like story and character development second to fight choreography, camera work and pacing. This is pretty funny, because when martial arts are portrayed in other media(television, books, comics and sometimes video games), story and characters actually do have importance equal to the other considerations. So why is that? Why are we so forgiving of martial arts film when we’re not as forgiving of it in other media?

Well, a variety of reasons, which we’ll tackle per medium. In the case of television, there’s both a limitation in terms of time constraints(because of the shorter time format of a weekly show and the schedule of filming them) and more freedom(because a story can be better developed over the total time of a show). This means that fighting can’t be the focus of the show entirely because it’d quickly become monotonous. Also, with the longer format over time, you can slowly build characters into a whole while not limiting the action. 

In the case of books, it’s simply not feasible to focus on the fighting because of how visual the concept of martial arts is. It’s really not easy to describe a fight step by step in a book without boring the reader to tears over how the story’s basically stopped cold until the fight’s done. While other forms of fighting, like dueling or military action, can be pretty well translated to the written page, martial arts are very difficult to portray in text.

In the case of comics, we have a combination of the problems of both TV shows and books. Just like TV, comics are a short-individually-but-long-over-time visual format, so focusing exclusively on the fighting can result in bored readers. In fact, this is one of the biggest complaints manga fans have over many martial arts manga, like Bleach, Naruto and Battle Angel: Last Order, that there’s so much fighting over such a long time that the comics become unbearably dull. But also, like books, martial arts comics have a hard time showing the movement and execution of moves. To portray a martial arts move in loving detail in a comic book would eat up the panel count. that’s why martial arts in comic books tend to be more fantastic in nature and use loads of shortcuts. Thus you have things like fireballs being chucked around and using a bazillion drawn fists to portray a character punching in quick succession. 

Of any medium, it’s video games that best emulate the relationship with martial arts that film has. You can focus a game exclusively on fighting and have it work as long as it’s entertaining, which is an entire genre of game, the Fighting game. You can literally have NO story and the barest inkling of character as long as the game offers variety and tight gameplay. However, video games can also offer an experience similar to TV, in having a longer narrative and character development. indeed, a game can have a MASSIVELY longer narrative than any TV show. Take the RPG Xenogears, for example. It has martial arts as an integral part of the game, both inside and outside the robots, but it’s story and game time can clock in at hundreds of hours. A TV series would have to last several seasons to even come close to that length. In this case, games that are not Fighting games are subject to the same rules as TV in terms of story and characters. I didn’t mention the fact that one of the advantages video games have is that they are interactive, cause that’s a big duh.

And so we come back to film. Film, when compared to all the other formats, is short, usually not clocking longer than 2 hours(massive epics like Red Cliff notwithstanding). They tend to have a longer development cycle, too, since filming is not constrained by a weekly format like TV. It is much more appropriate for representing martial arts in action than both comics and books, and the extra time for editing and post-production results in a much glossier, spectacular product than TV. Basically, as a non-interactive entertainment medium, film is the one most appropriate for showcasing martial arts in action. This results in martial arts fans being MUCH more forgiving to a film’s faults in terms of narrative as long as the fighting’s sound. One of the phrases I am sure you’ve heard to describe a martial arts movie is this: “Well, the story’s not really that impressive, but the fights are AWESOME!”

Well, how is Flash Point then? Well, the story’s not really that impressive, but the fights are AWESOME!

The story: Inspector Ma(Donnie Yen) is a Hong Kong policeman in pursuit of a gang of Vietnamese smugglers, led by a trio of brothers: violent Tiger(Xing Yu), suave Archer(Ray Lui) and leader Tony(Collin Chou). Among their gang is one of their lieutenants, Wilson(Louis Koo), who’s actually an undercover cop and part of Ma’s investigation. Wilson’s undercover work is slowly getting to him, but Ma keeps encouraging him to continue for a breakthrough in the investigation. Lucky for Wilson, he has Judy(Fan Bing-Bing), a loving girl who keeps him centered. Eventually, a breakthrough does come for an arrest of the gang, but Wilson is found out and almost killed. Now Ma and Wilson have to try not only to arrest the Vietnamese smugglers, but also try to protect their loved ones from retaliation.

Yeah, like I said, the story’s nothing you haven’t seen before. But also like I said in that essay on top, martial arts movies are judged differently, so let’s review the film on those merits. The story works well to establish the set pieces of the movie. The heroes are likeable, the villains are hateable, and the plot works, generic as it might be. I do have to point out that it surprises me that the plot be so generic considering the director’s Wilson Yip, who directed Donnie Yen in the epic Ip Man films, which are outstanding in both martial arts AND plot.

As for the action, wow. When you see a Jackie Chan film, you expect kung fu comedy and insane stunts, when you see a Jet Li film, you expect beautiful fight choreography and floaty wire work. But this is a Donnie Yen film, and what you get with him is ridiculously brutal fights. Yen has always stood out for wanting his fight scenes to be as authentic as possible, and as such he choreographs them based on modern martial arts, specifically MMA. This results in making the viewer cringe  at the action on screen. Joints get broken, faces bruised, noses turned into dripping messes, heads supplexed into furniture, it’s seriously great. Specifically, the fight halfway through the movie between Yen and Xing Yu and the final fight between him and Collin Chou are insane. The movie also has some great action setpieces that are not martial arts, like Yen chasing Xing Yu before their fight, and a shootout at a coastal shantytown near the end of the movie. Throughout the entire film, the camera work is rock solid and the fight choreography fast and furious. The movie even has an outtake reel during the credits showing Yen and co. practicing their choreography and filming the movie.

When all’s said and done, Flash Point is just your standard martial arts film, but it’s elevated over other fare because of how excellent the action is. Don’t expect a story to move you to tears, but do expect a hell of a fun ride.

Recent Movie Review: Django Unchained (2012)

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Behold: my first review on a movie that’s still in theaters! Shit just got REAL, son!

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DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington


***SPOILER WARNING: IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE FIRST, GO AND WATCH IT BEFORE READING, AS THERE ARE MINOR SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW.***


I’m gonna sum up this movie with just one sentence: this is Quentin Tarantino’s best movie, hands down.

No, seriously. this movie is his magnum opus. His masterpiece. This is the one movie of his which all his following movies will be graded from, and the movie that will be discussed in hushed, reverential tone. This movie is FUCKING AMAZING.
 

The story: Dr. King Schultz(Christoph Waltz) is a failed dentist, but very successful bounty hunter. on the hunt for a trio of fugitives, he eventually buys(in no easy, orderly fashion) a slave by the name of Django(Jamie Foxx). Django was a slave in a plantation where the fugitives Schultz is looking for used to work, and knows their faces intimately. Schultz tells Django that he is NOT his slave, he’s merely using him for information on the fugitives’ looks, since Schultz doesn’t know what they look like, and once he gets his quarry Django will receive a portion of the money and walk a free man. Django agrees, and this is the first step towards a deep friendship with Schultz, who eventually makes Django his partner in bounty hunting. Pretty soon, they’re not only cleaning up the South left and right, Django becomes a formidable pistolero in the process.

During the course of their friendship,  Schultz eventually learns that Django had a wife, Brumhilda(Kerry Washington), and that they were both runaway slaves who were sold separately as punishment for their escape attempt. Schultz comes to an agreement with Django: Django continues to be Schultz’s partner in bounty hunting through the winter and he’ll help Django find his wife. Django accepts, and eventually they find out that Brumhilda was sold to the Candyland Estate, a plantation known for its extensive and brutal practice of slavery for generations, and its current estate owner is the not-as-charming-and-refined-as-he-seems-to-be Calvin Candie(Leonardo DiCaprio). Candie is an enthusiast of mandingo fighting(using Black slaves in human cock fights), so Schultz fashions a plan: he and Django will masquerade as being interested in buying a mandingo from Candie, and in the process buy Brumhilda back. They buy Brumhilda first, then claim they’ll go get the rest of the money for the mandingo, but then bail and never be heard from again, and since Brumhilda’s name is on the buyer receipts, she’d be legally free. 

However, once they get to the estate, their plan is found out by Stephen(Samuel L. Jackson), an old slave who serves as Calvin’s majordomo and counselor. Stephen is the worst kind of man: a slave who’s lived comfortably all his life on account of being a servant in his masters’ house and who looks down on all other slaves. He rats the plan to Candie. Cue shit hitting the fucking fan.

As this is a Quentin Tarantino film, there’s things you already expect from it: cursing like a motherfucker, witty throwaway dialogue, oodles of violence, etc. But here’s the kicker: Tarantino is actually subverting himself with this film. All the cursing is justified because of the setting(the Deep South two years before the Civil War), so all the N-Bombs being dropped are exactly how white people would refer to Black people in that era. The dialogue is NOT throwaway, with every line being necessary to the narrative. The violence is more crude and less theatrical, meant in many instances to make us uncomfortable of watching it. All the things that make a Tarantino film are there, but much more justified and masterfully played. The camerawork, as expected of a Tarantino film, is tight and wonderfully shot, being handled by longtime collaborator Robert Richardson, and the soundtrack is, as always, AWESOME. I’m also VERY pleased that all the violence and bloodshed in the movie is practical effects, though I wasn’t surprised to see that one of the cameos in the movie is, appropriately enough, Tom Savini. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a hand behind the scenes on the effects department.

With this movie, Tarantino has finally fixed one of the things that’s always bugged me about his style, even with me being a fan: the pacing. Tarantino’s dialogue-heavy style leads to awesome character moments, but it also has a tendency to grind the movie to a halt(the worst offender being Death Proof), but this movie finally NAILS it. When the movie’s flying, the dialogue is fast, witty and funny. When it slows down, it is meditative or meant to build tension. There’s loads of talking in this movie, but none of it feels forced or overstays its welcome, and even though the flick’s 2 hours 45 minutes, it wasn’t a drag at any moment. This is obviously in part because of the editing, and editor Fred Raskin seriously did an outstanding job.
 

The movie also has LOADS of awesome cameos and minor roles, so Spot the Celebrity can certainly be played wonderfully with this flick. Don Johnson, the aforementioned Savini, James Remar, Zoe Bell, Jonah Hill, Walton Goggins, Robert Carradine and Michael Parks all appear, to name a few, but the one that made my inner fanboy squee was Franco Nero, the ORIGINAL Django from the classic Italian spaghetti western, and there’s a joke between them that will make any fanboy laugh.

And now we go to the acting: A_M_A_Z_I_N_G. Jamie Foxx is on his A-game in this movie: Django is made of awesome. Even when he was a slave, there was intensity and rebellion in him, and when free and able to hunt down white men for a living, he takes to it with glee. There’s also always a deep intensity to him, even during the quiet moments(or better said, ESPECIALLY on the quiet moments). Christoph Waltz, as always, is ridiculously charming and witty, and is easily the most likeable character in the film, every bit the equal of both Django as a character and Jamie Foxx as an actor. Kerry Washington, while her role is smaller than the men’s, makes an effective damsel in distress with an edge. She’s not helpless because of being useless, she’s helpless because of the brutality of the environment she’s trapped within. Leonardo DiCaprio probably had the most fun in his role, as he destroys the scenery one bite at a time. He’s larger than life and deliciously fun to hate.

Many people right now are acclaiming Christoph Waltz’s performance as one of the best in the film, and rightfully so, as it was awesome. But to me, THE performance of the movie is none other than Samuel L. Jackson. Holy shit, is this role ever a departure from his usual roles, and it is incredible. His character is even MORE morally bankrupt than DiCaprio’s, being a slave who’s perfectly fine with being a slave, as it has led him to live a privileged life, and treats all other slaves as beneath him. He was a slave to his master, his master’s father, and his father before him, and he thanks Jesus for it. No one in the movie calls a slave a “nigger”(there, I said it, flame away) with as much vile and contempt. He instantly dislikes Django on account of him refusing to be treated as second class(he even calls him “uppity” in one part, holy shit). He plays a fool in front of his master’s guests, but behind closed doors he’s a Machiavellian counselor. He not only betrays his fellow Black man when he finds out Django’s plan, he actually believes it’s the right thing to do. To perfectly describe you this character, imagine The Boondocks' Uncle Ruckus, but not played for laughs. Yes, it’s as frightening and wrong as it sounds. Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is an even MORE despicable villain than DiCaprio’s Candie, which is not only quite a feat in and of itself, but it’s also a feat on account of Samuel L. Jackson being unlikeable. Trust me, you’ll want this character to die horribly. 

The movie is already causing controversy for many reasons: the N-Bomb gets dropped hard and often, the violence is downright brutal, the slavery is portrayed crudely and inhumanly. Well guess what? THAT WAS THE POINT. Tarantino’s not whitewashing history here, the Deep South pre-Reconstruction was a BRUTAL place for the Black man. Django’s story is, in part, an allegory of Black America’s struggle against white oppression, and I for one felt that it was not offensive, it was downright empowering. A Black man is freed and he becomes a legend, managing to succeed when the odds are grossly stacked against him. Lemme put it to you this way: extremist Blacks have criticized the film for supposedly exploiting the concept of slavery, and extremist WHITES have criticized the film for supposed anti-white bigotry. I’ll just go out and say that both these sides are wrong and fucking retarded. Yes, slavery is portrayed as inhuman and exploitative, because it IS inhuman and exploitative. The movie has no anti-white message, one of the heroes(and probably the most moral and benign character in the movie) is a whiter-than-Wonderbread German man. And a white man who points out how inhuman slavery and those who practice it are. So to all of you who criticize this film on those fronts, please stop drinking the Kool-Aid.

Django Unchained was a JOY to watch. it’s both my favorite movie this year and my favorite Tarantino movie. Tarantino has, in my opinion, outdone himself and crafted a masterpiece of a film. Awesome spaghetti western, awesome revenge flick, awesome drama, awesome action flick, awesome comedy, it embodies many genres and is an excellent example of all of them. I beseech you to watch this flick, it’s a treat for any serious movie enthusiast. My highest recommendation.

Oh, and Jamie Foxx does full frontal in one scene. Mr. Foxx, you have balls, pun intended.

Movie Review: Altered States (1980)

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ALTERED STATES (1980)


Directed by: Ken Russell

Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis

Few directors have been as correctly labeled as a genius and a madman as Ken Russell. Controversial and acclaimed in equal degree, Russell basically made it his life’s work to both bedazzle audiences and push their buttons. He’s widely regarded as being the first British director to divorce himself from strict realism and try for the exuberant, colorful style prevalent in other countries like France, Italy, and yes, Hollywood. His movies are extravagant, psychedelic and thought-provoking. Oh, and controversial as all hell. His 1971 film The Devils, based on the novel The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley, is, to this day, impossible to get in its original, uncut form and is still discussed, admired and condemned in every rung of academia where it’s been analyzed. His movies based on famous composers are both fascinating portraits of the men whose lives they portray and masterpieces of psychedelia.

And that is possibly the most appropriate description to both Altered States and Russell’s filmography as a whole: psychedelic. I personally don’t partake of psychedelic drugs for myriad reasons, but I have it on good authority that his movies BLOW MINDS when seen while high. And honestly, I didn’t even need the drugs to get my mind filled with fuck by Altered States, it’s a wonderfully weird movie.

Altered States is the story of Edward Jessup(William Hurt), an Abnormal Psychology professor whose particular field of study is altered mental states. Just that fact is enough to give you a hint of what’s to come. Jessup is not merely knowledgeable in his area of study, he is a bonafide genius in his field. He is also quite radical and obsessed with his field of interest, to the point that he could be considered a high-functioning autistic. He is passionate towards his studies and experimentation, but blunt and awkward in his interaction with others. It is this passion for his work, however, which makes Emily(Blair Brown), a fellow scientist, be fascinated by him, and the two eventually marry and have children together. However, Eddie’s single-minded obsession eventually strains the relationship, and they divorce under amicable terms. Emily, however, is secretly devastated by the divorce, as she is still madly in love with Eddie.

Eddie’s theory on altered states is that they are actually as real and valid as our regular waking state. After all, we do not have fake fear when being scared by a hallucination or delusion. If those altered states can cause real emotions and impact on our psyche, what’s to say they’re not some kind of glimpse into something beyond? This theory is, of course, highly controversial, but Eddie’s colleague Arthur Rosenberg(Bob Balaban) believes it has enough validity and potential to become Eddie’s right-hand man in his experiments. Eddie’s primary tools of experimentation are sensory deprivation tanks and mind-altering drugs.

(This mimics the experiments of John Lilly, the famous neuroscientist who studied forms of consciousness with similar methods, including inventing the very first sensory deprivation tank. He was also friends with guys like Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, so that also gives you an idea of the kind of guy he was.)

Eddie progresses in his experiments, but he feels that he needs some kind of breakthrough in his work. This breakthrough, apparently, comes from an acquaintance of his, Eduardo Echevarria(Thaao Penghlis). Eduardo is studying similar theories to Eddie’s in the context of spirit journeys, and is heavily involved in research of Mexican shamanic priests and the psychedelic drug they use for their meditation. Eddie begs Eduardo to take him to meet the shamans, and they both travel to Mexico for the fateful meeting. Eddie is accepted by the shamans and invited to participate in their ritual, and when participating in their ritual Eddie ends up in the absolute most powerful altered state he’s so far been able to achieve after ingesting the drug. When Eddie wakes up, he realizes that some of the things he thinks he hallucinated while on his trip actually happened, that many of the images he saw were abstract representations of his actions during the trip, and he decides to bring the drug back to America for study, and to use it in conjunction with the sensory deprivation tank. Arthur reluctantly agrees to help him, but another colleague, Mason(Charles Haid) is adamantly opposed to the experimentation on account of the danger of experimenting with an unknown drug and amplifying its effects through the sensory deprivation tank. Mason’s fears are well-founded, as Eddie ends up almost dying from one of the trips, but something more sinister is happening: it seems that the experimentation with such powerful forces is actually changing Eddie physically. Apparently, he is tapping into something beyond human understanding, something more… primal.

The first thing I’m going to mention about this film is that it is visually FUCKING AMAZING. I was flabbergasted at both the excellent use of the camera and the awesome effects, especially considering this film was made with technology from 1980. it seriously looks much more recent in terms of visuals. The editing and pacing of the film are also something I really liked. The film, in its more serious moments, is slow and methodical, dare I say serene. These are the scenes that establish the characters’ motivations and philosophy, and while slow, they’re never boring, which is an accomplishment. Every character is supremely well realized. Eddie is a FASCINATING protagonist. He is flawed, but not in a way that makes him unlikeable, and we’re genuinely swept up in his fervor. This is in part from the excellent writing of the character and in part from the AWESOME performance by William Hurt. I’ve always despaired of the fact that William Hurt is such an amazing actor but doesn’t receive as much spotlight as other actors of his generation, and I’d use this film as a perfect example of why that sucks. Blair Brown does an equally excellent performance as Emily, Eddie’s estranged wife. She has an interesting duality between being an abandoned wife who yearns for her husband’s love, yet actually understanding her husband’s obsession on account of being a scientist herself. Bob Balaban as Arthur does a good job, but he’s really just there to serve as Eddie’s helper in experimentation. This contrasts heavily with Charles Haid’s Mason, who is INTENSE AS FUCK in serving as both a voice of reason and an antagonist to a certain extent. He is not a bad guy, and in fact we can easily sympathize with his opposition to Eddie’s experimentation, as it is fueled by genuine concern for his colleague over both the danger of his experiments and his fragile mental state.

If there’s one negative thing I can say about the film is that I found its ending too neat and happy for my taste. Up to that point, the film had been a pure “meddling in God’s domain” type of film, so I would have expected a downer ending like in, say, The Fly(in fact, if this film had been directed by Cronenberg, it would TOTALLY have had that downer ending). This is, however, a minor gripe, and the happiness of the ending is to an extent justified, as it is the culmination of Eddie and Emily’s relationship, which gives it finality.

Altered States is an awesome film. It’s kinda hard to gauge what sort of person to recommend it to, as it is a very weird film and not for everybody, but those who love intensely visual and visceral films will definitely love it. I sure as hell did, and I’ll gladly recommend it to anyone who likes cerebral sci-fi.

Movie Review: Confessions (2010)

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CONFESSIONS (2010)


Directed by: Tetsuya Nakashima

Starring: Takako Matsu, Yukito Nishii, Kaoru Fujiwara, Ai Hashimoto

It certainly took me long enough to review a Japanese film, but the fact is that I’m completely to blame, because to be honest, I’ve been fatigued by the Japanese lately.

The fact is that any fans who study well the present situation in Japan can easily see that there’s a serious creative crisis in the land of the rising sun. A decade ago, Japan was acclaimed by fanfolk as one of the most dynamic and interesting sources of fan fare. From videogames to anime to film, Japan was churning out loads of interesting genre fare, and it was also releasing among it many thoughtful films. And through it all, Japan kept a very clear cultural identity in their fare. Japanese film and genre fare is OBVIOUSLY Japanese. But the last few years, amongst the many fandoms, “Japanese” has become synonymous with “formulaic”. With the exception of the most dedicated of the anime fandom, fans of pretty much every medium and genre can testify that the Japanese have been lacking lately. Many of the more famous anime studios have been shut down, movie output to the world has slowly dwindled, videogames have become stale and repetitive. This has also resulted in a sort of xenophobic withdrawal: Japanese fare is pretty much now made exclusively for the Japanese, only available there and of themes that are too foreign for international audiences.

This may sound like I’m hating on Japanese media, but trust me, I sincerely WANT to love it still. I grew on anime since I was 4 years old(back in 1984, for those wondering). I have quite a few anime series of which I am a deep, faithful fan(many mecha anime, Lupin the 3rd, Saint Seiya and Fist Of the North Star being my favorites). I am an adoring fan of directors like Kinji Fukasaku and Takashi Miike. Many of my all-time favorite game franchises are Japanese. But sadly, in all these fronts, Japan has been very sparse in providing me fare to get excited about. Lately, Spain, Britain and South Korea have been the foreign countries which have provided me the greatest enjoyment filmically, and as I mentioned, this saddens me. Japan, like any other country, can produce cinematic crap, but there was a time when even their crap had a manic energy or a cunning subtlety that still made it worthwhile, and when they did GOOD flicks, they were OUTSTANDING.

I am happy to say that Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions is an OUTSTANDING film.

The story: Yuko Moriguchi(Takako Matsu), a mid-school teacher, addresses her class with the news that it will be her last day with them as their teacher, to which the class reacts with joy, as they all have resentment towards her for her seeming coldness as a pedagogue. However, the mood changes from joy to interest to dread to horror as her retirement speech continues: Yuko is retiring because she had lost her daughter in what was ruled an accident(she drowned in the school’s swimming pool). Yuko relates of her life with her daughter, and that she had not died accidentally, but of foul play, and that the culprits were two students of the class. This kind of news obviously causes a stir in the class, especially when Yuko hints that the culprits are the class ace student Shuya(Yukito Nishii) and the unpopular and bumbling Naoki(Kaoru Fujiwara). Yuko further exposits that even though she knows it was them, she couldn’t really do anything about it, since not only did the police rule her daughter’s death an accident, but Japanese law actually protects minors from prosecution, so they’d still get away with the murder even if discovered. So Yuko leaves the class with one final revelation: she actually laced milk that Shuya and Naoki were drinking with blood from Yuko’s husband. Blood which is infected with HIV.

This setup puts into motion a deluge of tragic events for all the players involved, and the movie becomes both a character piece and a revenge flick. Both Shuya and Naoki are deeply affected by the events of that day, with Naoki becoming an insane recluse and Shuya being bullied and humiliated in school. Shuya’s bullying is especially chilling, because the flick doesn’t pull any punches in showing that kids can be cruel at a level beyond any rational adult. Shuya eventually does have some respite from the bullying when he is befriended by Mizuki(Ai Hashimoto), a fellow student whose detachment from the rest of the class allows her to actually appreciate how much abuse Shuya is getting, and they become confidants and lovebirds. However, this also gives Mizuki insight into Shuya’s mind and actions, revealing that underneath the honor student facade lies a manipulating, sadistic mind. The movie uses the format of “confessions” to move the story: every chapter is narrated by one of the players, describing his/her point of view of the events and how they affect them emotionally. The movie basically allows us to become intimate with its characters on a very deep level, and this is part of what makes the narrative so effective. In this way, it slowly builds the story towards the culmination of Yuko and Shuya’s ultimate confrontation of victim and killer, and the payoff is IMMENSELY satisfying and shocking. The ending to this film seriously left a deep impression on me, and that speaks volumes of the movie’s greatness.

On a technical level, the movie is AMAZINGLY shot. Director Tetsuya Nakashima knows how to frame a shot beautifully, and his decision to mute the colors of the film(only allowing color in very deliberate and thematically relevant scenes) gives the film a feeling of cold, but bubbling with intensity underneath. There’s also one particular scene where shots are used in reverse slow motion, and the effect is jaw-dropping. This guy knows how to make the camera do his bidding. The acting all around is great, and adds to the mood of cynicism and underlying dread of the film.

The film also covers particular themes that are very much a part of Japanese culture for better or worse: the immense disconnect between youth and adults, the crisis of parental abandonment and youth delinquency and bullying. This film is cynical in the extreme: joy is practically non-existent, and fatalism abounds. The movie constantly questions both its characters and audience what is worth living for, and indeed if life itself is worth living. We’re also asked to judge how much of a person’s bad actions can be blamed on him and how much is actually the fault of society, of parents and teachers. This all results in a film that is not happy at all. You can actually count with one hand how many moments of true, innocent joy there are in the film, while cynicism is practically the entirety of its running time.

While the movie is dark, it thankfully avoids the trap many Japanese films have been guilty of lately of going way over the top on the violence, gore and black humor to seem edgy and extreme. This movie is not funny, not overtly violent and not gory(just some blood, nothing really extreme). It is very subtle visually, and that I am thankful for. Instead, its intensity lies in its plot and mood, but is, again, very subtle about it. The final act of the film hits with that much more impact because of how subdued and restrained the rest of the film is, and it ensures the movie’s payoff is immensely satisfying.

This movie was chosen by the Japanese as its representative for Best Foreign Film at the 2011 Academy Awards, and it’s easy to see why. It didn’t win, and it’s obvious when you see it why this is the case, since this is an emotionally draining film too negative in mood for what the Oscar committee usually looks for. but that’s their loss, cause this movie is an incredible experience, and I exhort everyone to see it. Highly recommended.

Movie Review: Prometheus (2012)

PROMETHEUS (2012)


Directed by: Ridley Scott

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall

Yeah, yeah, I’m late to the party. See how easy it is to see a flick when it comes out if you don’t have a car, butthole.

So yeah, Prometheus. Legendarily lambasted as the movie where science lost and Ridley Scott jumped the shark. Everyone and their mother has reviewed this flick, and pretty much it’s universally panned by internet reviewers as an idiotically plotted mess and an example of incredibly wasted potential. Well, now it’s time to give my two cents about it. However, I will point out one thing about my review: I do not care if the movie’s an Alien prequel or not. Too many people have attacked the movie because it doesn’t make sense within the timeline and plot of the Alien films, when you really should judge a film on its own merits. So basically, my review will only pertain to what is on-screen, not any details outside it.

And I’m just gonna get this out of the way: I didn’t hate this movie. I didn’t think it was a GOOD movie, but I honestly can’t hate it with the venom other people who’ve reviewed it before me had. What I found the movie was underwhelming, and THAT is the biggest crime this movie commits: it’s only ok, when it could have been AMAZING, and you could FEEL that there was the seed for greatness underneath it all. It’s incredibly wasted potential.

The plot is thus: archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway(Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, respectively), after years of investigation, find a link between many different archeological sites on Earth from cultures which have never been in contact with each other: strange glyphs and the image of a giant man, which point to visits from an alien race and coordinates for their point of origin. Upon investigating further, the glyphs(which are a constellation map) actually point them to a planet which possesses a moon that has telltale signs of being able to sustain life. With backing from the Weyland Corporation’s CEO, Peter Weyland(Guy Pearce), a ship, the titular Prometheus, is sent with a crew of various scientific minds towards the aforementioned moon. Its mission: first contact with whom Shaw and Holloway call the Engineers: the possible creators of humanity.

Read that paragraph again and tell me that’s not an AMAZING setup for a sci-fi film. The film elegantly sets up its plot and already has us asking questions. Deep questions. THE questions. Where did we come from? Were we really created? Why were we created? Why did our creators leave us to our fate? If we were created, what about God? Some of these questions were first asked by our ancestors as they huddled around fires inside caves thousands of years ago, and are still asked by the best and brightest of us today. People like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins and many others have asked these same questions at one moment or another. The first ten minutes of the film, were riveting. The film firmly grabbed me by my balls. I WANTED DESPERATELY for this movie to be good. Anyway, after a two-year journey, the Prometheus finally arrives at its destination, and the ship’s crew awakens from cryostasis. Assisted by the ship’s android, Davide(Michael Fassbender), the crew then readies for its mission, led by Captain Janek(Idris Elba) and supervised by Weyland employee Meredith Vickers(Charlize Theron).

And then, the movie started to turn stupid.

First of all, basically, none of the members of the mission have actually been introduced to each other and the nature of the mission itself was kept a secret from the crew until the last moment. Flat what? So, what, these guys just agreed to be part of a mission where they’d be flown far away from home for two years without even knowing what the mission entailed? Not only that, but there’s basically no military or security personnel on the mission. BIG WHAT?! So, what, there’s the possibility of first contact with an alien race and the mission doesn’t even have a security detail?! What if the aliens are hostile? What if there’s hostile fauna? What if there’s a misunderstanding with the aliens and there’s a need for defense? What if the aliens have al-Qaeda-type extremists who, while not the majority of the aliens, are still fanatically violent towards humans?

Um, this isn’t nitpicking, these are actual concerns and situations that would be considered by any mission of this magnitude. This is, at its most basic, common sense. And these are supposed to be the brightest scientific minds on Earth. Yet, they gleefully sign up to go to an alien world unprotected, dismissing the lack of military support as the mission being scientific in nature and not military. These people, my friends, are lambs going to the slaughter. And that is the most infuriating aspect about this film: the conceptual framework is riveting, but the plot is acted out by idiots. Not only do characters act stupid, they act contradictory to their purpose.

In one particular sequence, the mission’s geologist and biologist, Fifield and Millburn(Sean Harris and Rafe Spall, respectively), are freaked out by finding an alien corpse and decide to head back to the ship, get lost and are eventually attacked by an alien creature. Now, as I described it, nothing stands out as particularly out of place or illogical about the sequence, right? Well, Fifield, the geologist, uses a series of spheres to map out the structure they’re exploring, so he’s actually in charge of creating a map of the place. The guy who created the map of the structure got them lost inside it. And then, when they find the creature, a sort of snake-like thing, Millburn, the biologist, actually starts to coo-coo ga-ga it. The thing hisses and opens up its face, and he decides to poke it. ARE YOU FUCKING SHITTING ME? You are a biologist, your main area of study is LIFE, an alien creature does the universal signal for “leave me the fuck alone” and you FUCKING POKE IT? AAAARGH!!! And the movie is full of little bits like this that make you groan out loud. Characters do things that are flat-out retarded and we can see their demise coming a mile away.

Prometheus, like Cosmopolis, is a movie that is betrayed by its script, but while Cosmopolis is marred by characters that don’t act like real people, Prometheus is marred by characters that act real fucking stupid. And this is a total shame, because the movie actually has a load of things going for it. First of all, the movie is visually STUNNING. Ridley Scott, as always, uses the camera masterfully to really immerse you in the goings-on of the film, and this movie OOZES atmosphere. The visual effects team also did an incredible job with all the creature effects, technology and sets. The costuming department also deserves kudos, cause the suits the characters wear look AWESOME. Both the visual effects and costuming people are the guys I’d go to if I wanted to make a movie based on, say, Dead Space or Mass Effect. One particular scene that illustrates perfectly how this comes together is a scene where David finds a holographic projection room, and a hologram shows the Engineers as they find Earth. The scene is awe-inspiring in the way only the best sci-fi can. We’re talking Enterprise-on-its-docking-bay, Star-Destroyer-following-the-Rebel-ship, Christopher-Reeve-flying-as-Superman awe-inspiring. Powerful as all hell. That scene genuinely gave me goosebumps. If there’s only one gripe I have about the film visually is that the old man makeup on Guy Pearce is fucking awful. Johnny Knoxville’s old man makeup in Jackass is more convincing.

On the acting side, the movie is superbly acted. It’s not the actors’ fault the script is stupid, and they give it their all. Specifically, and quite surprising for me, Michael Fassbender’s role as David was hands down the most interesting character in the film. I don’t have the nerd crush on Fassbender that the rest of the internet seems to have, I actually find his acting to be run-of-the-mill or downright dull. In A Dangerous Method, I found him actually making me not care about the plot because of his cold, wooden performance. But funnily enough, that same subdued acting was an asset for his role as David, on account of him playing a character who’s not human and reacts to the situations happening around him with detached interest. I give you credit, Fassbender, you really hooked me with your performance. Everyone else does great acting as well. Noomi Rapace is always gorgeous and intense, although she plays a more vulnerable character in this film when compared to tougher characters like she played in Guy Ritchie’s second Sherlock Holmes film or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Idris Elba is charming and likeable as always, and Charlize Theron can act the stone-cold bitch in her sleep. Everyone else did a good job. As I said, the film was well-directed and well-acted.

But now, I’m gonna spew vile at the writers. No, I didn’t hate the film with a passion, but yes, I’ll hate the film’s writers with a passion. The movie’s writers are Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. Before this, Spaihts scripted the absolute fucking shit-fest that is The Darkest Hour(that invisible alien invasion movie)… and nothing else. NOTHING. Lindelof is known to sci-fi fans as a producer and writer for Lost, and any fan of that show can easily point out he was the writer when Lost headed straight to the shitter. These are two guys that have NO BUSINESS scripting a high-concept movie such as this, let alone a movie directed by Ridley Scott. Their script is idiotic, their characters stupid, and the movie asks a bazillion questions without answering any of them. I understand a movie doesn’t need to tell me everything about it straight up, but it shouldn’t insult me by refusing to answer any questions I have and expect me to remain interested.

When all’s said and done, Prometheus is a film that has a fascinating concept, expert direction, gorgeous visuals and excellent acting, while having a truly execrable script. These two extremes meet in the middle and result in a film that’s merely mediocre, which is a damn, damn shame. Still, I will give this film credit: I’ll go see the sequel if and when it comes out, just to see if the concept can be salvaged and the questions answered. Cause as I said, the seeds for greatness were there, they just didn’t fertilize them with a worthy script. I guess in the end the movie can be considered an amusing diversion, but not really worthy of being considered amongst the greatest of sci-fi films. Watch it to see what all the fuss is about, but don’t interpret this as me giving it a recommendation.

Movie Review: Cosmopolis (2012)

COSMOPOLIS (2012)

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Gadon, Kevin Durand, Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche, Emily Hampshire

I never thought I’d say this… I hated a David Cronenberg movie. I hated this fucking movie. Jesus Horatio Christ, I HATED this fucking movie.

Anyway, Cosmopolis is based on a novel by author Don DeLillo. Never heard of him before, not very interested in reading any of his work if the film is any indication of his style. Movie stars Robert Pattinson, pretty much exclusively as all other actors in the flick are there to react to him.

The basic plot(if it can be called that) is this: Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a multi-billionaire asset manager. He wants to get a haircut AT ALL COSTS, so he has his people drive him across Manhattan on a limousine to an old barber who’s a friend of his family. He tries to do this while the President is in town, a famous rapper’s funeral is holding traffic, and there’s a friggin’ anti-capitalist anarchist riot going on, and yet he complains that all this is basically unimportant and he should be magically whisked above it all. During the journey, he coincidentally encounters his wife, Elise(Sarah Gadon), and constantly asks her to have sex with him, but just ends up eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with her instead, since she constantly tells him that she thinks the marriage won’t work and that he smells of sex with other women… cause he has sex with other women. He pretty much fucks every other woman in this flick. The rest of the film he acts like a self-important bored prick. Because of bad decisions, he actually, by the end of the film, is pretty much headed towards financial ruin, and he honestly doesn’t give a fuck. In the ending, a disgruntled former employee(Paul Giamatti) may or may not have killed him, and I don’t give a fuck. Yeah, the plot can be basically summed up as “stinking rich prick gets bored and fucks up his life for shits and giggles.”

Ok, first, the good parts: Cosmopolis, as is expected of Cronenberg, is perfectly shot and paced, and the soundtrack by long-time collaborator Howard Shore is AWESOME(in fact, the ethereal soundtrack mixed with rock riffs reminded me a lot of Crash’s soundtrack, which I fucking loved). And the actors actually do a good job. Not an EXCELLENT job, but their acting was ok.

It’s THE SCRIPT that is absolutely fucking horrid.

First, the plot itself. Look, a fall-from-grace story can be a powerful cautionary tale and a fascinating character study when handled right(there’s a reason Citizen Kane is considered one of the best films of all time). But the character also needs to have redeeming qualities, and it’s the loss of these redeeming qualities to hubris that make the story have impact. If a character has no virtues, we don’t care if he succumbs to his flaws. That’s not tragedy, that’s karma. If the character has what pretty much can be considered an enviable life(riches, power, women dying for your dick) and he himself fucks it up on purpose, well, who gives a shit? That shit should be reserved for the tabloids, not for a movie. And that is the dilemma about this film: it asks us to look into a man’s life as he spirals into self-destruction but doesn’t give us any logical reason to care about it except that he’s the film’s protagonist.

And we go on to the main character: Eric Packer is a totally reprehensible asshole. He supposedly has actual affection and desire for his wife, but he only addresses her with intentions of sex. He even points out in one conversation that he’s actually having a conversation, as if to point out that yes, he’s capable of thinking of something other than sex. This comes off as shallow and full of shit to his wife as it does to the audience. He treats his employees as tools, with no show of care about their well being or even their status as a person. He has sex with an art dealer(Juliette Binoche), and right afterwards steers the conversation to wanting to acquire a famous artist’s work just because he HAS to have it. She reasons with him that that particular piece has historical value and should be made available to everyone, he replies that if he bought it, it’s his and no one else’s to do whatever he wants with it. One of his star employees(Jay Baruchel) is on the border of a nervous breakdown because of overwork and he just keeps badgering him about how good his limo’s information security is. He picks up an employee(Emily Hampshire) in the middle of her day off to make her give him financial advise, and does it WHILE GETTING A PROSTATE EXAM FROM A PERSONAL DOCTOR. The guy has the bluntness of a knife made of cream cheese. Hell, he even talks in the Royal We, the ultimate sign of condescension and entitlement.

In one particular scene, he meets up with a rapper(K’naan) and learns that his favorite rapper just died of a heart condition. Packer seems visibly despaired, giving possible hints of humanity, but then he ruins it by saying that he used to listen to his music on his personal elevator. He sees the rapper’s death as a loss for his musical tastes, not as a human being who has expired and should be mourned for who he was and not for what he did. Later, he has a conversation with his chief of security, who’s spent the entire film constantly warning Packer about attempts on his life and protecting him, and Packer just grabs his gun and shoots him dead. Just because. And he does it in public, with a gun that can only be traced to him. What’s intended to come across as a man losing his grasp on sanity and heading towards his downfall comes off as a guy being an uber-prick to another human being who only had his best interests in mind just because he can get away with it.

Many people have said in positive reviews for this film that Eric Packer is supposed to represent the ugly side of big business, and that the film is, in some way, supposed to represent the indifference of the big companies towards the Occupy movements that have sprung up during our economic recession. I call ABSOLUTE BULLSHIT on that. Packer, by halfway through the film, is actually performing deeds that will bring about his financial ruin on purpose, which no CEO on the planet with half a brain would attempt. We accuse the heads of big business for hoarding money for themselves, always trying to get richer, yet the character that’s supposed to represent them actually does not care if he’s broke? Also, the anti-capitalist rioters are painted in the worst, most bugfuck crazy way possible. They throw dead rats inside restaurants, supposedly trying to raise consciousness to a cause but coming off more as insane zealots who can be considered a legitimate threat to public safety. They spray-paint and attack limousines on the streets. They burn and pillage like the worst of mobs. Hell, one of them even immolates himself as a form of protest, Vietnamese monk-style. Really? A bad economic situation is big enough a cause for protest through SUICIDE? This has a terrible effect on the film: we can’t sympathize with Packer cause he’s a self-absorbed asshole, but we can’t sympathize with the average man either cause he’s fucking insane.

The film also has one characteristic that will make me hate ANY film: pretentiousness. The movie paints itself as having some kind of deep meaning, something to say, yet it’s all psychobabble. In one particular scene, Packer is talking to his chief advisor Vija(Samantha Morton), and she starts on this LONG rant about the nature of money and how it affects the perception and value of time. This would be fascinating stuff… if this were a movie about philosophy. Instead, it’s a character piece about a corporate magnate. Corporate magnates don’t give a shit about their advisors peppering them with philosophical discussion. An advisor is there to advice about the company. So basically, the movie paints the characters as supposed visionaries who have a deeper understanding of the way the world market works because they understand the underlying philosophy behind it. And yet, these visionaries are running a company to the ground and don’t do anything about it. Completely stupid. Hell, Vija even mentions that she doesn’t understand how the financial report screens in Packer’s limo work. HIS CHIEF ADVISOR DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO READ FINANCIAL REPORTS. That’s like hiring an engineer who doesn’t understand basic algebra!! And then, when they go by the immolating protestors, she remarks that it’s “not original”, that setting yourself on fire is nothing new, an imitation. This is supposed to represent how corporate America doesn’t care for the little man, but it just further cements that these are not real people, they are caricatures of what we supposedly believe about corporate America. No rational human being reacts to a man burning alive with indifference.

And that basically is an illustration of my biggest gripe about the entire film: it’s a cartoon. It’s not satire, it’s cartoonish parody. It is not smart, it is pretentious. The characters do not talk at all like human beings, they have a theatrical, snobbish affectation, i.e. artificiality to their speech. I called Eric Packer condescending earlier in the review, but he cannot really be accused of that since he’s SOOOOOO divorced from the average man that he couldn’t possibly even have a frame of reference. The movie hints that he made his company out of humble beginnings and that he was poor before he became powerful, but his attitude is one of such immense entitlement that he comes off more as a royal completely oblivious to the common man than as a man who sold out. The rioters who are supposedly fighting for their rights are merely background noise and more at home in a third-world country than on the streets of New York. The story has all the hallmarks of badly done fanfiction.

The saddest part? Cronenberg himself penned the screenplay. I don’t know how good or bad the book is, but I seriously doubt that it’s as shallow and insipid as the film’s script is. This film is, in my opinion, an awfully done vanity project. As a regular joe, I seriously cannot identify myself with this film on ANY level. I don’t feel it insults my intelligence because the film is not intelligent at all. I don’t feel it represents me as an average person in a bad economy because the characters who are supposed to represent me in the film are caricatures of the worst of anarchists. I don’t feel happy to not be Eric Packer because he’s more like a malfunctioning robot than a flawed human being.

Seriously, Cronenberg, why are you making me hate you? I wasn’t impressed with A Dangerous Method and now you’re actually pissing me off with this flick? PLEASE make your next film a return to form, my heart wouldn’t take another disaster like this.

Quick Movie Review: La Herencia Valdemar (Parts 1 and 2, 2010)

LA HERENCIA VALDEMAR (The Valdemar Legacy in English, Parts 1 and 2, 2010)

Directed by: Jose Luis Aleman

This will be my first Quick Movie Review. This type of review format I will do for movies which I think, to put it bluntly, suck. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean it was a BAD movie; it could be a good-yet-flawed movie which did not live to the premise’s potential, which is the case here.  The bottom line, however, is that I would personally not recommend flicks I review in this format, and I obviously do not believe they merit my usual in-depth review.

La Herencia Valdemar is a two-part film(think Kill Bill) based on H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. That right there was enough for me to have BIG expectations for it, since I’m a huge fan of Lovecraft and the genre he created, cosmic horror. Lovecraft’s work has been (relatively)directly adapted into various movies, like the Re-Animator series, From Beyond, Dagon and even some classic 60s-70s b-movies by schlock master Roger Corman. It has also been a HUGE influence in popular culture beyond direct adaptations, with loads of movie, comic and game series being influenced by him. Needless to say, Lovecraft’s a big deal, and any movie directly referencing him better deliver.

Sadly, La Herencia Valdemar chokes halfway through, making for a very inconsistent film. The first half of it(Part 1, obviously) is actually an excellent flick, a modern-day mystery with a Victorian-era origin steeped in Gothic mood and atmosphere. I finished the first film giddy to watch the second one and see what the payoff was from all that was established in the first film. But the second film just doesn’t feel like it’s the same story. The writing and acting in the second film felt stilted and forced when compared to the first, the pacing became erratic, and the characters fell flat compared to their characterization in the first movie. While the first film felt like an EXTREMELY well-done low budget horror film, the second one felt like a SyFy channel original movie, it’s THAT bad.

This is a damn shame, because La Herencia Valdemar could have become a modern classic of the genre if done well. I simply cannot recommend it; even if the first half was genuinely an entertaining and creepy film, half a movie is not something I tend to enjoy.

Movie Review: Balada Triste de Trompeta (2010)

BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA (The Last Circus in English, 2010)

Directed by: Alex De La Iglesia

Starring: Carlos Areces, Carolina Bang, Antonio De La Torre, Santiago Segura, Sasha Di Bendetto

Aaaaaah, Alex De La Iglesia, that mad genius from la madre patria. If any filmmaker can be associated with grindhouse-type black comedy, it’s him. The man is like a Spanish Rob Zombie circa House of 1000 Corpses, only, you know, GOOD. His films are ruthlessly profane, gritty, cruel and relentlessly funny. Balada Triste de Trompeta is no exception, but it is also De La Iglesia’s most complete and compelling film yet. It is a fractured fairytale, a tragic love story and a horrific horror flick in one deliciously disturbing package.

Our story begins in Madrid, Spain, in 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War. In an unnamed circus, an unnamed clown(Santiago Segura, aka Torrente!) does his act to the absolute delight of the children in the audience. However, the laughter is short-lived, as the war reaches the circus: a squad of Republican soldiers bursts into the circus tent and forces the circus performers to join them against Francisco Franco’s Nationalist rebels. Although forced to fight in a battle he wants nothing to do with, the clown still does so fiercely, and armed with only a machete(and dressed in drag!). However, he is wounded and captured by the Nationalists. The clown’s son, Javier(Sasha Di Bendetto), visits his father in military prison, and his father tells him that if he’s going to go into the family business, he cannot be the Happy Clown like his father, since Javier’s childhood has been taken from him. He instead says his destiny is to be the Sad Clown. Javier eventually tries to break his father out of prison, but the attempt fails and his father is trampled to death by one of the soldiers’ horses. Javier is left heartbroken. Flash forward to 1973, and the grown Javier(Carlos Areces) is about to join a circus as their newest Sad Clown. Javier has never been a clown before, but his innate grasp of sadness makes him a perfect Sad Clown, remaining stoic in the face of the humiliations his character faces.

Javier’s fate, however, is to be tragically intertwined with that of two of the circus’s other performers: Natalia(Carolina Bang, yes, that’s her real name) and Sergio(Antonio De La Torre). Natalia is the beautiful(and I MEAN beautiful, she’s drop-dead gorgeous!) trapeze artist, whom Javier instantly falls in love with. Sergio is the circus’s happy clown, and a very talented one at that, being the circus’s main attraction. He is also cruel, sadistic and abusive outside of costume… and he’s also Natalia’s boyfriend. The first interaction between him and her is him beating the ever-loving shit out of her. The SECOND interaction is her waking up, licking the blood off seductively and fucking with Sergio in a public place. Yep, it’s one of THOSE relationships.

After an altercation between Javier and Sergio, Natalia develops an interest in Javier, since he’s the only one who’s actually not laughed at Sergio’s jokes. Javier is terrified of Sergio, but his infatuation for Natalia and wishes to see her safe are much stronger. Meanwhile, Natalia starts showing inner conflict between Javier’s genuine tenderness towards her and Sergio’s animal magnetism. Natalia starts teasing Javier and secretly going out with him. Sergio finds out. SHIT HITS THE FUCKING FAN.

Balada Triste de Trompeta is GRITTY. The movie is dark and gray, but explodes with color in scenes, and is beautifully shot and framed. I’ve seen some of De La Iglesia’s earlier movies, like Acción Mutante and El Día de La Bestia, and they were nowhere near as beautifully shot as this, the man has truly grown as a cinematographer. The movie also has some use of CG for some landscape shots, but it’s used ingeniously and during dark scenes, to make it as seamless as possible. Hollywood, take note. I was also VERY pleasantly surprised at the AWESOME makeup the leads get after their respective mutilations. My GOD do I ever love seeing practical effects on screen. The story is wonderfully written and paced, and has many elements of classic stories but with its own unique spin. If it resembles any story, it is Pagliacci, the classic opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo, only the roles of protagonist and antagonist are reversed: it’s the lover who’s the protagonist and the cuckolded spouse who’s the antagonist.

The performances in this film are AMAZING. Carlos Areces as Javier is sympathetic and likeable… initially. But when he goes nuts, hooooooly shit does he ever go off the deep end. It takes a good actor to convincingly play a fall into insanity, and Areces is awesome. Antonio De La Torre as Sergio is suitably terrifying. His character is not physically imposing, but he is a force of nature when in full raging asshole mode, really driving home how scary a guy can be just by having a bad attitude. He also has some moments that actually can make you sympathize with him, which is a hell of a feat. Carolina Bang… I needed a cold shower after watching this flick, because she is fucking S_E_X_Y. The woman exudes sex. She is seductive and intriguing, and has a talent to sexualize the most disgusting things. She actually made receiving a senseless beating seem like foreplay. She has probably the meatiest role in the film, since she not only needs to play a femme fatale, she also has to portray one whose antics violently backfire on her. Her character is the one that most changes during the course of the movie, and Bang delivers. The rest of the actors do great jobs in their roles, with Santiago Segura being a stand-out as Javier’s father. Segura’s already a veteran of Spanish film and black comedies in particular, but he plays a surprisingly serious and heartfelt role in this, when compared to his usually more goofy fare.

Balada Triste de Trompeta is not a feel-good movie. Of all the black comedies I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve seen many, this is one of the absolute darkest. However, you WILL feel damn good about seeing it, it’s a friggin’ masterpiece from start to end. The performances are great, the story is entertaining and never drags, it is gritty and darkly hilarious. A hell of a time.

Movie Review: Melancholia (2011)

MELANCHOLIA (2011)

Directed by: Lars Von Trier

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Jesper Christensen, Udo Kier, Brady Corbet, Cameron Spurr

This… was a hard movie to watch. If Lars Von Trier’s intent with Melancholia was to inspire that same sentiment in the audience, he certainly was successful. This is a maddeningly depressing film. This is right up there with Darren Aronofski’s darkest(Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler) as one of the most depressing films ever made.

The movie is divided into two chapters, which each feature one of the two sisters as a protagonist. Before the movie starts proper, we’re shown a collage of dream-like sequences foreshadowing the events of the film, leading to the first chapter and start of the film proper, with a wedding reception organized for newlyweds Justine(Kirsten Dunst) and Michael(Alexander Skarsgard). Late for the reception, they are chastised by Justine’s sister Claire(Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John(Kiefer Sutherland). Absentmindedly, Justine looks to the sky and asks John which star a particular one that caught her eye was(this will be very important later). Finally, after some delays, the newlyweds arrive at the reception for what promises to be a beautiful evening.

However, it is quickly apparent that this will not be a fun evening, as mishap after mishap happens that slowly ends up ruining the festivities. Justine, it turns out, is a Major Depressive, and the bustle of the wedding reception is slowly inching her towards an episode. This is not helped by her family, who each, directly or indirectly, worsen Justine’s anxiety as the reception moves along. Claire, who organized the reception, basically tries to control Justine’s actions throughout the whole affair, afraid that Justine won’t be able to handle the pressure. John, meanwhile, lays on the pressure that it was his money and influences which helped the whole affair being put together, and he doubts the value of the reception if Justine is apparently on a course to ruin the whole affair. The most damaging to Justine’s mood, however, are her mother Gaby(Charlotte Rampling) and her boss Jack(Stellan Skarsgard), who vocally oppose the marriage and pressure her with work-related concerns, respectively. The only people who show actual joy at Justine’s marriage and willingness to support her are Justine’s nephew Leo(Cameron Spurt) and her father Dexter(John Hurt!). However, Leo’s much too young to fully understand and support Justine in her moment of difficulty, and Dexter, although well meaning, is nonetheless distant because of Justine’s condition.

To make a long story short, all the events of the night end up ruining the festivities, and Michael even ends up leaving Justine right on their wedding night, a moment that’s actually pretty damn powerful. I certainly was affected by it, there is just a total sense of wrongness and tragedy in a bride being ditched by her husband on her wedding night. After the whole tragic affair, Justine is quite obviously an emotional wreck, and Claire brings her to live with her family to take care of her. The first chapter of the story ends with Justine noticing that the star she saw in the sky on her wedding night can’t be seen anymore.

The star’s disappearance is dramatically explained at the beginning of the second chapter: a rogue planet, dubbed Melancholia by astronomers, is heading towards Earth. Astronomers claim that the planet will fly by the Earth, becoming possibly the most spectacular cosmic event in the human race’s history. Claire, however, is overwhelmed with an unshakable sense of dread, as many people claim the planet will actually impact the Earth and destroy it. John tries to comfort Claire telling her that it is foolish superstition to think that way, but strange phenomena happen that exasperate Claire’s mood: electricity fails, animals are restless, snow suddenly falls in the middle of summer. By far, though, the most distressing thing for her is Justine, who is disturbingly serene and nonchalant about the whole affair and is fully convinced the planet will impact Earth and destroy it. The night of the planet’s fly-by comes, and the family is relieved to see that Melancholia indeed bypasses the Earth. However, the next day, Claire after talking to an obviously disturbed John, realizes that Melancholia is actually turning back…

First of all, the technique of the film is impeccable. Lars Von Trier is nothing if not an excellent cinematographer, and every scene is wonderfully shot. The Swedish castle were the filming took place is a stunning building, and Von Trier milks that for all its worth, with beautiful external shots. Von Trier has always been a fan of the digital camera, and he takes advantage of it by using filters and effects to give the movie an ethereal glow, producing a fairytale-like atmosphere. The titular rogue planet, when is it near the Earth, is a chilling spectacle, being both a supremely beautiful and unnervingly oppressive presence. Bottom line, the movie is pretty, that is undeniable.

The performances in the film are universally excellent. I have never been a fan of Kirsten Dunst at all, her only role I’ve actually enjoyed being Interview with the Vampire, but I honestly have to swallow my pride and say she genuinely does an excellent performance in this film. Usually, characters with Major Depression in movies are portrayed as kind of bored-looking, comically lazy or functional enough that some crazy highjinks can lift them from their fugue. This is NOT the case with Dunst’s performance: Justine is a broken, dysfunctional woman, barely able to feed herself without breaking down in tears. As someone who’s had family and friends undergoing depression, I can appreciate the verisimilitude of her performance. Charlotte Gainsbourg is equally excellent as Claire, accurately portraying the frustration a loved one can feel at dealing with a depressive, and the desperation one would exhibit at their whole world being turned upside down without any power to stop it. Kiefer Sutherland as John also turns in a great performance, juggling his characters love for his husband and child with the frustration of dealing with his in-laws, who are, in his opinion, certifiably insane. The rest of the performers do a great job, even if their performances are much less prominent than the three leads’. John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, in particular, are excellent as Justine and Claire’s parents. Hurt is completely likeable and charming; I wish he were my grandpa. As for Rampling, she is a stone-cold bitter bitch in this, and is a great “villain” for the little screen time she gets.

Now, if I have problems with this movie, it’s in the script. It is by no means a BAD script, but it is, in my opinion, an example of wasted potential. There are hints of a much deeper story that was not explored here. I understand that the movie is episodic, and so is there to show us the present events in the character’s lives; it is almost documentary-like in the way it tells its story. I have no problem with this. The problem I have is that it makes it kinda hard to connect with the characters when you don’t have some context to their actions. We see the symptoms of Justine’s depression, but we don’t see the causes. We get hints of them, to be sure. A domineering mother who treats her like shit, a domineering boss who is willing to harass and blackmail her about work in her own wedding reception, a domineering sister who treats her like a child(see a pattern?), we can definitely see the possible causes for it. But we don’t know. Her mother is domineering and cold, why? What is her workplace like? How could a barely functional depressive like her keep it together enough to actually marry? What was her childhood with Claire like? As great as Dunst’s performance was, it’s hard to sympathize with her character if we only see how badly she’s screwed up but not why.

Similarly, the other characters could have used a little more fleshing out as well to understand their motivations. I have no complaints about John, since he’s very clearly defined as far as characters go. He’s a good husband, a good father, and is worried about how his sister-in-laws condition affects his family, pretty straightforward. But in Claire, we get the impression of deep-seated resentment and frustration, but without context she comes off more as a cold bitch. Gaby also comes off as supremely cuntish for the sake of being cuntish. We get the impression that Dexter was a loving father, but not a very involved one. Like I said, we only get hints of the characters’ motivations and reasons for being the way they are, but we never know concretely. It feels like the movie has a huge chunk taken out of it. The movie’s already pretty long, at 130 minutes, but I really wouldn’t have minded maybe an extra half-hour to explore the characters’ backstories and better make us sympathize with them.

Be that as it may, Melancholia is nevertheless a haunting film, and one that will linger in your mind for days afterwards. It is emotionally draining, and Dunst’s performance will drag you down with her as much as she does the other characters in the film. As a story, it leaves a little to be desired, but as an experience, it’s well worth watching.

Movie Review: Intacto (2001)

INTACTO (Intact in English, 2001)

Directed by: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

Starring: Max Von Sydow(yeah! Really!), Leonardo Sbaraglia, Eusebio Poncela, Mónica López, Antonio Dechent

If there’s one thing I love about my life, it’s that I am honestly surrounded by people with GREAT fucking taste in movies. Case in point, my bro Ferdi. Ferdi’s a communications major, and part of the reason he followed that field of study is his unabashed love for great film. He recently got Netflix through his PS3, and he’s basically gone on a movie-watching binge. He gae me access to his account, so I’m on a steady diet of flicks lately, and the first time he got the service, told me to come over to his house telling me “Bro, I’m watching a Spanish film you have GOT to review!”

And boy was he ever right, cause Intacto is a fucking gem of a movie.

Imagine, if you will, that there’s a society of secretive people hiding amongst us. They are people who love to manipulate humanity, they parasitize from humanity, they live for thrills and danger. They look just like us, yet they have a supernatural gift that separates them from the rest of humanity and makes them believe themselves superior. They are also, by the nature of their gift, natural enemies to one another, and constantly play games of intrigue and daring between each other, with the stakes being the world, almost literally. You’re thinking vampires, right? Well, what if I told you that what they consume from other humans is not blood, but luck?

Samuel Berg is a holocaust survivor-turned-casino mogul with a very particular gift: he is supremely lucky. Not only did he survive the Holocaust, but everything he does is guaranteed success. This luck is not mere coincidence, as it turns out there’s certain people with the ability to suck away other people’s luck to feed their own, luck vampires if you will. These people will take away a person’s luck, leaving their lives doomed to failure and misery, while they do nothing but enjoy their lives. Amongst these people, Berg is infamous; he’s simply the luckiest of them all. Berg is so lucky that, to stave off boredom, he invites other people to games of Reverse Russian Roulette: he loads a revolver with five bullets and gives it to another to kill him. The gun always lands on the empty chamber, and afterwards his shot always lands on a live one, killing the challenger.

In Berg’s employ is another individual with the same gift, Federico. Raised since childhood by Berg and groomed to be his successor, Federico works for Berg by being a cooler, sucking up people’s luck in Berg’s casino thereby guaranteeing the house always wins. However, Federico is ambitious and individualistic, and chafes under Berg’s guidance, wanting to earn things instead of having them handed to him by Berg. While attempting to escape from the casino to break out on his own, Federico’s luck runs out on him QUITE literally, as Berg catches him in the act and proceeds to suck his luck away, before having him kicked out of the casino and into the world a broken man.

Seven years later, Federico is slowly planning to take revenge on Berg for taking away his luck, and is doing so by looking for an individual who might just be lucky enough to beat Berg at the game. Enter Tomas, a bank robber who, while attempting to escape the authorities, survives a plane crash without a single scratch. Confident that he has found the man he’s looking for, Federico takes Tomas under his wing and introduces him to the world of the lucky: an underground ring of thrill-seekers who utilize their uncanny luck to play deadly games of chance with enormous stakes, including human lives. While this is going on, Tomas is pursued by Sara, a policewoman who inadvertently also possesses the gift. Also, amongst the gamblers, is Alejandro, a bullfighter who manages to beat Tomas at one of the games, and wins the one thing Tomas would never gamble: the life of his girlfriend.

Intacto is an INCREDIBLE thriller movie. It is meticulously paced, superbly acted, and has a script that keeps you on the edge of your seat with all the surprises it throws your way. It has elements of a crime thriller and magical realism mixed in a fascinating package. The movie also has elements of the conflict between fate and will, as characters voluntarily give away their free will to let their lives be run by a roll of the dice.

This is one of director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s first films. You might remember him as the director of 28 Weeks Later… and little else. Seriously, he hasn’t done much yet, although he’s still pretty young as directors go, and I’m excited to see him get more high-profile work. He was supposedly linked to the Bioshock movie, which would have been pretty epic, but that’s hit development hell, so meh. In this film, he’s in top-notch condition: the movie’s tightly filmed and superbly paced. He really knows how to film tension-filled scenes superbly, you can FEEL the intensity of every moment.

The leads all do remarkable jobs in their roles. Max Von Sydow is, of course, an old veteran, and he plays Berg with gravitas and intensity. The character may be old and tired, but Von Sydow imbues him with a mean streak that defies his seemingly placid exterior. He’s not the film’s villain in the sense that there is no actual antagonism in him(and the other characters in the film aren’t exactly heroic), but he exudes quiet menace. Leonardo Sbaraglia as Tomas is awesome: he has loads of roguish charm, but also portrays the disappointment and horror of Tomas’s rude awakening effectively. He’s a scoundrel, but one we eventually root for when the shit hits the fan. Eusebio Poncela is a veteran of Spanish-language film, and plays Federico as a suave, fast-talking rogue who you can’t second-guess, a great enemy to Von Sydow’s Berg and traitorous mentor to Sbaraglia’s Tomas. Antonio Dechent plays Fernando as a cocky, confident born-gambler. As a former bullfighter, he treats his luck and bravado as well-earned traits. If any actor is a little lacking, though, it’s Mónica López as Sara. The character is interesting enough, with a tragic backstory that ties to the luck vampires, but she just doesn’t emote enough for me to sympathize with the character, she seems too robotic and cold for what the character demanded.

Intacto is another fine example of Spanish cinema, and it’s just a great flick overall. Definitely worth your time if you’re looking for a cerebral, entertaining thriller.

Movie Review: eXistenZ (1999)

EXISTENZ (capitalized eXistenZ, 1999)

Directed by: David Cronenberg(yay!!)

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston

At first glance, eXistenZ is not David Cronenberg’s best film. It is not a bad film, by any means; on the contrary, it’s actually pretty damn good. However, it was made during the transitional period where Cronenberg was heading towards less visceral, more cerebral fare, like A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises. As such, there’s an awkward fit between the film’s dramatic themes(more common in Cronenberg’s most recent fare) and its fantastic elements(much more common in his classic era). However, two things make the movie great: its very cerebral themes and how unexpectedly influential it is.

(Note: To distinguish one from the other, the film will be written italicized as eXistenZ, while the computer program will be written as eXistenZ)

The basic plot: in a not so distant future, video games have evolved beyond simple entertainment into the realm of pure escapism. Gaming computers are now bio-engineered organic things, which connect directly to a user’s nervous system, projecting themselves directly to their brain. Allegra Geller, a video game designer for Antenna Research, is the world’s greatest video game designer, and in a conference she is unveiling eXistenZ, her newest gaming masterpiece, and supposedly the most advanced and realistic game yet. During the conference, an attempt on her life is made, and she is carried away by a young Antenna intern named Ted Pikul. Allegra is eerily calm for someone who just had an attempt on her life, but is also very paranoid about the whole thing, and keeps insisting that Ted help her test eXistenZ on her rig, since it’s the only copy of the program and she needs an outside person to test run it to see if it’s functioning correctly. eXistenZ, as it turns out, does work, FRIGHTENINGLY so. The game is practically indistinguishable from reality… and you can see where this is going.

If you get a serious case of déjà vu from that synopsis, yeah, I saw The Matrixtoo. Do note, though, that The Matrix and eXistenZ came out practically simultaneously, one being released merely weeks after the other, so there’s really no link there other than the filmmakers coming up with similar ideas at roughly the same time. However, where The Matrix had two distinct layers of reality and mostly used the concept as setting, eXistenZ was the first movie to really explore the theme on a psychological level and explore multiple layers which start confusing the senses into questioning what’s real. The fake reality of The Matrix was imposed since birth, and was for all purposes real life until someone unplugged you from it; then it shattered like the illusion it was and you could never see it as real life again. In eXistenZ, people created the virtual world as a way to escape reality, and they desire that fake reality much more than the real one. Whereas The Matrix symbolizes a prison to break out off, eXistenZ is a prison of our own making, or perhaps even a vehicle to escape the prison of real life. Also, eXistenZ is no popcorn movie. eXistenZ is as similar in themes and different in approach to The Matrix as the Ridley Scott-directed Alien is to its James Cameron-directed sequel.

eXistenZ has much more in common with a drug than a game, and the theme of addiction and obsession is as present in this film as much as any of Cronenberg’s other fare. People become so addicted to the escapist games that they neglect their real lives. They see Allegra as a literal goddess, as someone worthy of worship. This is reinforced by the game’s name: “isten”, if you notice, is capitalized differently, and it’s Hungarian for “god.” There’s also an immensely sexual connotation to eXistenZ as well. The computers that run the game are organic, flesh-colored, looking like a mass of labia, clitorises and nipples. The wire you connect it to your body with looks like an umbilical cord. The port you need to get to use it looks like a sphincter muscle. A person who’s hooked into the game writes and moans as if in sexual ecstasy.

Using an entertainment medium as an analogy, eXistenZ also serves as an essay on escapism, obsession with media and desensitization. You see people in the game act out urges they don’t dare act on in real life, including gleefully murder a human being or have sex without consequence. However, it also posits that these are all choices the characters make, and one of them even comments about how, if you’re not able to distinguish one reality from the next, can you tell if you’re merely killing a game construct or an actual human being. However, Cronenberg’s not trying to preach, he’s trying to get us to think and come to our own conclusions. This movie’s not a Columbine-style condemnation of media, it is an appeal to personal responsibility. After all, Cronenberg’s an outspoken defender of free speech and condemner of censorship in all forms. The timing of the film is pretty eerie, too: eXistenZ came out just three days after the Columbine Massacre.

All the elements mentioned so far also, coincidentally, make eXistenZ a sort of spiritual successor to another Cronenberg film, Videodrome. In fact, one could say that eXistenZ is to the videogame generation what Videodrome was to the VCR generation. A double-feature of both films back to back would make for a very fun and cerebral movie night.

The theme of layers of reality becoming blurred with one another and looking for answers in a virtual world also shows the movie influenced Christopher Nolan’s Inception. This has more credence than you get from a first glance: Christopher Priest, the novelist who wrote the novelization for eXistenZ also wrote the novel The Prestige, one of the best movie adaptations of a novel ever and one of Nolan’s finest films. If anything, it proves that Nolan has the same appreciation for the theme that Cronenberg has, and watching eXistenZ after watching Inception is a refreshing experience. Seeing similar themes on a movie released a decade before does not take anything away from Inception, instead elevating eXistenZ, and it also proves that part of what makes Nolan such a great director is that he was influenced by one of the greats.

Writing this review, I realized that I had a sort of blasé reaction to the movie as I finished watching it. I liked it, but kinda shrugged my shoulders, not really being blown away by it like I have been by other Cronenberg films. Yet, the more I think about the movie’s themes and the questions it raises, the more it grows on me. This is part of what makes the movie great: it stays with you and makes you think. Many movies serve as an escape from reality. Few are successful at doing so while making you actually ask yourself WHY you’re doing it. It’s not an easy feat, and doing it successfully is what makes eXistenZ a great film. Definitely worth checking out.

Movie Review: Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (2002)

CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002)

Directed by: George Clooney

Starring: SAM FUCKING ROCKWELL!!, George Clooney, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, Rutger Hauer

First, some background on this film’s creation is in order…

Before Jerry Springer. Before Maury Povich(you are NOT the father!). Before the guidos on the Jersey Shore. Before TLC became a channel about women with clown car vaginas, midgets and pedophilic beauty pageants. Before all this TV schlock, there was Chuck Barris. The (in)famous producer of such TV “classics” as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, Barris was churning out shows spotlighting people pathetically making fools of themselves just to be on TV before it became a thing. His shows were raunchy, exploitative and critically lambasted, yet no one could stop watching them. In 1984, Barris published a memoir titled Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind(shortened to COADM from now on), chronicling his career and life. While the memoir included the expected view from behind the scenes into his career, Barris also dropped a bombshell on the reading public: he claimed that, while working his career as a TV executive, he also led a double life as an assassin for the CIA.

This revelation has been met with many responses, but indifference isn’t one of them. Opinions range from accusing Barris of blatant lies, to belief that they were the ramblings of a man slowly losing his sanity, to believing Barris to be stealthily writing a first-person novel and masking it as his own life. However, friends, loved ones and coworkers of Barris reacted with surprisingly little surprise, talking about changes in mood, frequent disappearances and suspicious movements on Barris’s part. His closest people thought that there WAS a possibility, however ridiculous it may seem, that Barris was telling the truth.

The rights for COADM were kicked around studios for years since the novel’s publication, going so far as to having Bryan Singer attached as director and JOHNNY FUCKING DEPP scheduled to play Barris. Ultimately, George Clooney ended up in the director’s chair, working off a script by legendary scribe Charlie Kauffman(Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind), and Sam Rockwell as Barris.

I don’t know how good any other version of COADM might have been, but I SERIOUSLY doubt it would have been better than this one, cause this film is a fucking masterpiece.

The film starts with Chuck Barris’s early days, showing him trying to make it in the flourishing television industry of the 1960s. He eventually meets the love of his life, Penny, and their relationship is one of the running plots of the film. The film covers his triumphs and failures during the early days of his career, until he finally meets Jim Byrd, a CIA spook who recruits Barris to be a hitman. The movie then does double duty, showing the progress of Barris’s career as a television producer(including his creation of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game) and his alternate life as a killer. During his killing trips, he meets fellow CIA assassins Patricia Watson and Keeler, with whom he forms an on-off relationship and a lasting friendship, respectively.

I’m gonna stop the review of the film there and start doing the critique, cause the film goes in directions you simply must not have spoiled. It’s truly a fucking joy of a film, funny, dramatic and sometimes even heartbreaking. This movie is George Clooney’s directorial debut, and goddamn, did he ever make an impact. The movie is tightly shot, perfectly paced. It should be shown in every film school in this country. This is also helped by Charlie Kauffman’s incredible script, which has the perfect mix of suspense, drama and black comedy. There’s never a boring moment, and every line that comes out of a character’s mouth is gold.

…Aaaaaaaaaaaand the protagonist is Sam Rockwell. I’ve already showered Rockwell with praise as one of my absolute favorite actors, but this film… This film is his tour-de-force performance. This is the role that made everyone sit up and take notice. He completely nails every comedic, dramatic and tragic moment of the film to pitch-perfection. Barris is a flawed character, but one you can’t help like. He’s a smart, charming fast-talker, easily throwing out the snark with a smile and a wink. He’s also a character in pain from years of lies, both in his TV career and his killing job. Rockwell portrays Barris’s eventual breakdown convincingly, and easily makes us empathize with his plight. Simply put, this is every Sam Rockwell fan’s favorite movie.

The supporting cast is also equally excellent. Drew Barrymore is charming and likeable as Penny, and greatly portrays a woman who has to live with loving a man while never being able to completely give herself to him the way she wants. George Clooney as agent Jim Byrd is hilarious playing the deadpan, stereotypical CIA spook, but can also become genuinely scary at a moment’s notice. Rutger Hauer is supremely likeable as Keeler, a fellow CIA assassin who’s become jaded and philosophical from years of killing, and who serves as a reflection of Barris’s possible future. I personally don’t like Julia Roberts, I’ve never understood her charm, but she totally kills this performance. Roberts’s Patricia is seductive and dangerous.

COADM is cinematic gold, it is in my opinion a flawless film. Perfect casting, masterful direction and super writing, a winning formula every time. My highest recommendation.

Oh, and Rockwell dances A LOT in the movie, hell yeah!

Movie Review: El Topo (1970)

EL TOPO (1970)

Directed by: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Starring: Alejandro Jodorowsky

My second review of Jodorowsky! And trust me, I’ll review La Montaña Sagrada too, but I need all my strength for that one…

Now some of you guys may be wondering why I’m reviewing Jodorowsky’s films in anachronic order. After all, I reviewed first Santa Sangre, which is one of his last films, yet now I’m reviewing El Topo, which is his first famous film, and later I’m reviewing La Montaña Sagrada, which is immediately after. Well, there IS an order to these films: it is order of WEIRDNESS. Jodorowsky is nothing if not abstract, and El Topo was definitely a sign of things to come. As weird and symbolic as Santa Sangre was, it was actually Jodorowsky’s most mainstream, least confusing film. El Topo is NOT mainstream, by any means, and while it doesn’t yet reach the true potential for weirdness Jodorowsky has, it’s a very abstract and symbolic film, heavy in imagery and religious undertones.

El Topo starts with the title character riding in the middle of the desert with his son. He gives him a toy and a picture of the child’s mother, and tells him to bury them in the sand. This symbolizes(get ready to read that word a lot in this review) burying his childhood and walking towards adulthood, a rite of passage. Immediately the beginning credits start, and we listen to a narrator telling us about the source of the gunslinger’s title:

“The mole(el topo) is an animal that digs tunnels under the ground. In search of the sun, it sometimes comes to the surface. When it sees the sun, it is blinded.”

That opening narration sets the tone for the entire film: a quest for enlightenment which leads to its protagonist’s doom. It is the tale of a Byronic hero, proud and confident in his abilities, who is brought down by his own hubris and tries to look for enlightenment as a way to put his life back together.

El Topo’s first adventure is to avenge the slaughter of a village by bandits. After saving the villagers, he is tempted by a woman from the village into taking her as his woman and leaving his son behind, his first act of selfishness and a step towards his eventual fall. The woman is delighted to be El Topo’s woman, but shows immense selfishness. While in an oasis, she drinks from it and remarks it is bitter. El Topo then stirs the water with a tree branch and tells the story of how the people of Israel, dying of thirst, begged Moses to find water, and when he did it was bitter. The bitter water they called Marah. El Topo and the woman then drink from the oasis which is now sweet water, and El Topo declares he will call the woman Marah, for she is like bitter water. Unknown to El Topo, this title would be completely appropriate, as will be shown later in the film.

El Topo teaches Marah ways to survive in the desert, how to find food and water. During this scene, he shows he is a highly spiritual being: he entrusts God to provide and he finds sustenance. Marah, meanwhile, finds nothing, and does nothing but complain. Eventually, El Topo attacks Marah, stripping her naked, as if peeling away her doubts and lack of faith, and she finally manages to find food and water by herself. He has gifted her with wisdom. He is a master of sorts, and Marah a less than enthusiastic student. However, Marah is not satisfied: she asks El Topo if he loves her, to which he answers yes, but she replies that he does not love him, for he needs to be the best. She then tells him that, in the desert, there are four masters of the gun, and that El Topo needs to defeat them to be the best. She becomes a tempter, leading El Topo to try to reach beyond his grasp.

This is one of the best parts of the film: El Topo on his quest to defeat the gun masters. While he does so, a mysterious gunwoman(with a man’s voice, it’s that kind of movie) follows El Topo an Marah from afar. Each of the masters is a philosopher, using the gun as a tool for spiritual enlightenment. The first master has learned to not be hurt by bullets by letting them go through him without offering resistance. The second master is dedicated to his mother to the point he is empty from desire, and as such can wiled he gun with amazing precision. The third master has a handcrafted gun he made himself which can only fire one bullet, but it’s all he needs, for he always aims true for the heart. The fourth master has nothing, craves nothing, cares for nothing, so he has nothing be taken from him. As he fights the masters, the gunwoman starts to seduce Marah, but she rejects her seductions… at first…

El Topo, one by one, defeats the masters. However, he does not beat the masters at their own game: they all remain superior to him, since Marah tempts El Topo into killing them all through trickery. In so doing, he learns nothing, he wins nothing, he masters nothing. With each “victory” he slowly starts to succumb to despair, until the last master finally breaks him. He becomes a shadow of a man, consumed by the despair. It is then that the biggest injustice is struck: the gunwoman confronts El Topo, and in his broken state he is no match for her. He is shot down, and abandoned by Marah. He has lost everything.

Decades later, El Topo awakens in a cave. He realizes he’s been tended for years by the people of the cave, deformed folk whom the world shuns because of their deformities. They are trapped in the cave, for the opening cannot be reach by them with their faulty limbs. El Topo then decides he will repay their kindness by going to the nearby village and working to open a tunnel and letting the cave folk free. With the midget woman who tended to him, he goes to the village as a clown, trying to earn money for the project.

The townspeople are decadent, impious folk, and a priest in the town fights fiercely to lead them away from heathen ways. He eventually meets face to face with El Topo… and they both realize in horror who each other are, for the priest is El Topo’s son, whom he abandoned so many years ago…

El Topo is one of those movies that demand attention to every detail, for it has many stories to tell. It is full of simile and analogy. It is full of religious imagery and symbolism, especially Christian and Buddhist. It is a metaphor for the search for enlightenment: it shows a man stripped of everything, only for him to look to the spiritual for meaning. All this makes for a VERY trippy movie. DO NOT expect a traditional Western with loads of gunslinging action and daring do, since there’s NOTHING resembling that in the film. In fact, the movie’s genre as a Western is practically incidental to the plot: you could have replaced gunslinging with swordfighting and the set it in Ancient China and pretty much nothing would be lost.

This, however, is one of the movie’s strengths: it uses the filmic language of the Western to tell a story about spiritual enlightenment and Buddhist themes and make it more accessible, and it works. El Topo’s quest for mastery lets us see how a man can be brought low by his own ambition if he is without the patience and wisdom to reach his goals in the correct way. These are timeless themes, and this makes the movie(which was released in 1970) age remarkably well.

The movie is superbly shot and scored. Jodorowsky has a great eye for frame composition, leading to some very impressive set pieces. The movie is acted very well, too. Jodorowsky himself as El Topo is a fascinating character. Beginning the movie, you’d think he’s gonna be a John ford-style Western hero, what with his avenging the slaughtered village and raining karmic vengeance on the thieves. But then, he abandons his own child and takes the woman. And he shows his spiritual side with the “miracles” he performs in the desert. Then you realized he has virtues, but is also deeply flawed, and that getting rid of those flaws will be the labor of a lifetime, quite literally. All the other actors perform well as well, with the actress playing the midget woman and the one playing El Topo’s adult son putting in very emotive performances. The four masters are great characters of the aloof Zen master-type, and Marah and the gunwoman also perform great as seductive beings which lead the hero astray.

I really love El Topo, it’s a great film. I am usually adverse to arthouse fare, since many of those types of movies force you to do your homework outside of the films to understand them, and that to me is a crime. A film should always stand by its own merits, not make you look in Wikipedia to understand what the hell you just saw. El Topo doesn’t fall into that trap. While it has Buddhist themes, you don’t need to know about Buddhism to understand its message. The plot may be abstract sometimes, but it’s not confusing, with the abstraction serving to give it a magical feel. This was my first Jodorowsky film, and I truly believe I couldn’t have been introduced to him better.