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Thank you, Craig Ferguson Jul. 16th, 2009 @ 09:24 pm

You know, some things just strike you and mean something to you, Oddly enough, the follow means something to me.

I've never been an alcoholic, and certainly never wanted to kill myself. But that feeling, that sinking feeling that you've managed to fuck up your life, I know that. God, do I know that.

So thank you, Mr. Ferguson, for the following video. In 12 minutes, Mr. Ferguson manages to touch upon personal, dark subject matter that manages to be inspirational and uplifting. Thank you for taking the risk and doing this, and God bless you sir.



Well Fuck Jun. 2nd, 2009 @ 11:05 pm
First, a morning of self loathing.

Then, an afternoon of working on tomorrows interview.

Finally, a productive and fulfilling night of working on an paper for publication.

And how does this night end after a good four hours of productive work? Wkith my favorite fucking forum announcing its closing. Three years of membership, getting to know people, building a community.

FUCK. Well, everything changes, doesn't it?
Current Mood: depresseddepressed

A Serious Note from a Pissed Off Person Feb. 14th, 2009 @ 07:19 pm

Generally, I don’t write serious notes. I’m not sure why: I have plenty of issues that piss me off and drive me up the wall, but I’ve never gone as far as writing a note on something.

Well, maybe it’s that this issue in particular ticks me off so much I can’t ignore it. Perhaps it is the fact that I’ve had a bit more anxiety than usual the past few days. Or maybe it’s that it is the latest in a long line of absolute crap that I’m just completely fed up.

Anyone who knows me that I am not a fan of the amalgamation which joined the city of Chatham with Kent County back in 1998. Since this time, Wallaceburg has basically been a punching bag, suffering one blow after another. I won’t go into too much detail, but a search of Google can fill you in. One issue has been a recurring problem is health care: namely, the continued existence of the Sydenham District Hospital, once a fully functioning unit that has bit by bit been the victim of idiotic bureaucracy and greed which is hell bent on seeing the hospital shut down.

Wallaceburg is a town of over 11 000 people, and the hospital serves not only them, but much of the surrounding area. The next major hospital, of course, is in Chatham, a thirty minute drive from Wallaceburg going the legal limit. Once again, this threat of closure has again arisen, with no guarantees that the hospital will stay open. The issue has become so bad that a number of doctors have threatened to leave the area should the hospital be shut down.

Now, I’m not a medical expert. I do however remember hearing that with serious cases, such as a heart attack and blood clot, every minute counts. EVERY. MINUTE. Apparently, local government hasn’t heard the same thing. A fifteen minute drive a top speed to just get into Chatham itself, let alone the hospital, is ok. Longer if you live outside of Wallaceburg.

Excuse me, but let me be blunt for a moment: fucking bullshit.

I’m sick of seeing idiots more or less telling the citizens of this town that their lives are meaningless. I’m sick of seeing every accomplishment this town has getting torn to pieces. I will be the first to admit to once or twice being critical of the town, but I have never been disrespectful of it. It has treated me well. It continues to treat others well. And our hospital has treated the surrounding community well. But apparently none of this counts.

This is not a call to action: the people of this town are already fighting tooth and nail. And most of you live outside the area. This is the venting of one pissed off resident. No more. No less.
 
Current Mood: pissed offpissed off

War Inc. (Seftel 2008) Feb. 2nd, 2009 @ 06:28 pm

I suck. No two ways about it. I said I’d get this out soon and instead, it has come really, really late. I will try to get the next one out quicker than this. Anyways, on to one of the tougher reviews to have written.

There is no way to talk about War Inc. (Seftel 2008) without talking about Grosse Point blank (Armitage 1997), John Cusack’s cult classic comedy about a hitman who’s most recent job coincides with his high school reunion, for several reasons: first, much of the underlying structures to the two films are similar, as both revolve around their respective protagonists (in War Inc. named Hauser, Martin Blank in Grosse Point blank) undergoing a transformation from apathetic existence to attempting to achieve some form of redemption; secondly, in both cases Cusack is not only the star of the films, but a co-writer and producer; and lastly, because Grosse Point blank is one of my all favourite films, which left me with high expectations going into War Inc., given it was acknowledged as being the thematic sequel to the earlier effort by Cusack himself.

To look back on Grosse Point Blank is to see a film which is clearly of a specific moment in time. Like many films of this period, including mainstream blockbuster efforts such as Mission Impossible (De Palma 1996) and Goldeneye, Grosse Point Blank reflects upon the end of the Cold War and the lives of those whose existence was defined by it. Martin Blank (Cusack), a freelance assassin, is in the midst of an identity crisis, questioning his profession and the direction that his life has taken, which has simply descended into a form of mindless capitalism, working for the highest bidder. Worse, this form of greed is in the midst of being organized by Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), transforming the random mass of freelance hitmen into a unionized force so that they can “make more, (and) work less.”

The film’s central premise of Martin’s return to his high school and attempts to reunite with Debi (Minnie Driver), the woman he failed to take to the prom the night he signed up with the army, serves not only as a point of personal reflection but also of a metaphorical political reflection, attempting to look to the Cold War past in order to find a new direction for the country other than unrestrained greed. As Grosse Point Blank ends, it manages to find an optimism that perhaps a change is possible, as Martin and Debi literally drive out of Grosse Point and their pasts, with Grocer dead and Martin’s target alive.

Cut to eleven years later and War Inc. This time out, Cusack is Hauser, a depressed hitman working for Tamerlane, a company owned by the recently resigned Vice-President (Dan Aykroyd again), and which is running the first completely privatized war in the occupied country of Turaqistan. Hauser is ordered to the country to commit a political assassination, while hiding under the guise of being a Tamerlane executive planning a publicity stunt wedding of a Middle Eastern pop star named Yonica Babyyeah (Hillary Duff). At the same time, Hauser attempts to form some type of relationship with reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), who is attempting to expose the sins of Tamerlane.
If Grosse Point Blank was an optimistic tale of being able to move past the sins of old, War Inc. is an almost hopeless film which ends on a deliberately ambiguous note (pay close attention in the final few scenes of the film), a world where Grocer won and is getting away with it, almost literally as Aykroyd’s casting as the VP insinuates.

Unfortunately, the film also differs from Grosse Point in being nowhere near as sharply written, fined tuned, or timely. Whereas Grosse Point Blank was riding the zeitgeist of its time, War Inc is arriving at least a year too late, if not four, offering a pessimistic take on America’s future and politics just as the country seems to be moving in a more hopeful direction.

The main problem with War Inc. is that it goes the exact opposite route of what made its predecessor work: it places its politics before its characters, rather than allowing the politics to be subtext. The film is so overt in its politics that it feels like Cusack and crew were reading H.G. Wells before embarking on the screenplay, didactically denouncing the Bush administration’s policies while forgetting that they were attempting to make a comedy. The near future/semi-sci-fi setting of the film is gratuitous and unnecessary, and the film would have worked better by distancing itself from its very topic , at least overtly. Setting the film in a middle eastern country, fictional or real, is so in the audiences face that the characters are almost entirely reduced to caricatures, rather than real flesh and blood human beings. This could have worked had the film entered into almost total abandon with any sense of reality. Unfortunately, the film does want you to take the supposed drama of the film completely seriously and invest in its characters.

Nothing makes this point clearer than the film’s twist towards the end (MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD). As we learn during the course of the film, Hauser’s wife was murdered years before and his daughter taken, with him completely unable to locate her. However, as Hauser confronts the mysterious Viceroy (at least the film wants the character to be mysterious. It will take you all of five seconds to piece the identity of the character together once you were the voice), we learn that Yonica is his daughter. This revelation adds nothing to the film whatsoever, rather acting as a convenient plot device. In fact, it really only seems to exist to justify the casting as Duff as a Middle Eastern pop star. Of course, just about everything involving Yonica serves no purpose in the film, seemingly instead to be a tangent about low brow American culture dominating other countries that nobody seemed to ask Cusack remove from his script. (SPOILERS OFF)

However, this is not to say the film is not worth watching. While the satire might be a bust, the character of Hauser remains strangely compelling to watch. While on the surface Hauser might seem much like Martin Blank, Hauser is a far more broken and bitter character. In one of the running jokes throughout the film that actually works, Hauser engages in forms of therapeutic conversation with the disembodied Guidestar employee, voiced by of all people Montel Williams, letting the viewer in on Hauser’s disconnect from the world around him. Furthermore, the banter between Hauser and Natalie is fairly witty and enjoyable. Nothing as quotable as the majority of Grosse Point Blank is, but not bad.

In fact, Cusack and the rest of the cast are solid enough. The hitman role is tailor made for Cusack and he delivers in acting, if not in the scripting this time out. Tomei makes for a good “straight man” to Cusack’s Hauser, while Duff manages to surprise by not make me hate her every minute she’s onscreen. Aykroyd however is wasted, as is Joan Cusack who tries her hardest to make every scene she is in work.

As for the direction from Joshua Seftel, it is solid, though the film is clearly the artistic efforts of Cusack more than anyone else. Seftel brings a solid hand to the film, but is hampered by the weaknesses of the script. He does have a solid eye for action, effectively staging a number of sequences without drifting into too much shaky cam or Michael Bay style editing.

To sum it all up, War Inc. is a well intentioned disappointment, failing to live up to its thematic predecessor or deliver upon the promise that it holds at its core. I would still recommend renting the film, but simply keeping low expectations going in.

Next up is a trip to 1969 and If... (Anderson). See you then!


Find Me Guilty (Lumet 2006) Jan. 8th, 2009 @ 03:13 pm


Find Me Guilty
is perhaps the most frustrating type of movie to review simply for what it is: a professionally made, solidly written, directed and performed film that is completely lacks any distinguishing features to make it memorable. Of course, when you have a director as great as Sidney Lumet who gave us 12 Angry Men, a statement such as the one I made might still be seen as damning. It shouldn’t be, but the film never reaches the highs or lows that make a great director’s work worth discussing. When you consider Find Me Guilty from all angles, the conclusion I reach is that there are better Sidney Lumet films, better Vin Diesel films, better court room dramas, better court room comedies, and better mob films that one should seek out first.

The film is based on the true events of the longest criminal trial in US history as an entire New Jersey mob family is arrested and to be put on trial all at once. One of these mobsters is Jackie DiNorscio (Diesel) an aging man already convicted for a drug charge in a separate case. DiNorscio is approached by DA Sean Kierney (Linus Roache, aka Bruce Wayne’s dad), who will get DiNorscio’s prison sentence reduced if he testifies against his associates. Instead, DiNorscio refuses and chooses to defend himself in court, with occasional advice from lead defence attorney Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage). What results is a slightly absurd trial as DiNorscio’s generally loveable personality becomes the center of focus, much to the frustration of the prosecution.

The film is not so much the court case itself, but rather an examination of DiNorscio’s unfailing sense of loyalty to his mob family and his inability to differentiate between personal ties and business ties, even when such loyalty seems misplaced. When the film opens, Jackie is nearly killed when his cousin shoots him several times: Jackie believes his cousin still loves him deep down and is simply in need of help for a drug problem, hence his refusal to turn him over to the police. Indeed, as played by Diesel, while we know Jackie is not innocent of the crimes accused, he does have an innocent view of the world: he does not seem to understand why people could possibly dislike him or doubt that he loves them. Kierney is the exact opposite of Jackie: a man who is legally innocent and right but is so personally arrogant and dislikeable that the viewer almost entirely sides with Jackie despite of the evidence.

This is part of the problem though. In one of the film’s best scenes, Kierney lets loose his frustration about the jury finding Jackie likeable and its impact upon their society, noting that after all, these men are murders and thieves. However, the viewer is never really left in conflict. Jackie is such a nice guy that the crimes he has been involved with are pretty much swept away from the view of the viewer. Kierney and Jackie are at such polar opposite ends that any chance of conflicting ambiguity is tossed out the window for the viewer.

The end result of all of this is that there is no drama. While the film is interesting, it never becomes involving. The whole film is more of a collection of moments, of interesting scenes that really don’t add up to a whole lot. This is shocking given that, as noted, Lumet made perhaps the most intense court based films ever made in 12 Angry Men. Whereas each member of the jury in that film had distinct personalities and viewpoints, each bringing something to the table which added to the drama, beyond Jackie and Kierney the remaining cast has nothing to work with: Dinklage and Ron Silver have very little to do, and the entire mass of the mob is nothing more than a series of Italian mafia stereotypes.

Worse, the film has a made for cable feel about it, from adequate but not great production design to shoddy makeup. The film is supposed to be set in the 1980s, but nothing in the film ever manages to feel evocative of the era. And while Diesel does his best as an actor here, the makeup he is given never looks natural, never allowing the viewer to believe in the supposed age of his character. The film would have been better served by casting an older actor in the role, and given the likeable but not overly bright approach taken to Jackie in the film one could easily have seen Sylvester Stallone in the role. Yes, I am being serious.

I could say more about Find Me Guilty, but there really is not that much left. The film is a minor work for all involved, and is fine if there is nothing else to watch. But with all the possible choices one has, that will leave this film near the bottom of the pile.

Speaking of piles, I have a rough plan for the films that I want to go over in the near future. If you don’t see me post another one of these soon, start bugging me! The titles are:

Million Dollar Hotel (Wenders 1999)
War Inc. (Steftel 2008)
If... (Anderson 1969)
The Doors (Stone 1991)
The Merchant of Venice (Radford 2005)
Last Days (Van Sant 2005)
Persepolis (Satrapi and Paronnaud 2007)
Sneakers (Robinson 1992)
Swimming with Sharks (Huang 1994)
American Gigolo (Schrader 1980)
Downfall Hirschbiegel 2005)
Blue Steel (Bigelow 1990)
Needful Things (Heston 1993)
Wyatt Earp (Kasdan 1994)
Other entries
» Child's Play (Holland 1988)


I think I have to come up with a new term for talking about Child’s Play (Holland 1988), and the best I can think of is accidental film. An accidental film is a film that on some level is a success despite the fact that various problems resulting from the production process should have ended in a complete failure. Child’s Play is an accidental film, one that should require any viewer of the film to watch the special features in order to confirm what they will probably suspect over the course of watching it.

Let me back up a bit. My context for viewing Child’s Play is a little odd, so I should explain. I had known that the film was about a child who ends up with a doll with the soul of a killer in it, a solid B-film idea. However, before going into the film, I had also read an interview with Don Mancini, who had originated the idea for the film and wrote the initial draft, where he offhandedly mentioned that his original concept for the film had the doll being the id of the central child, as opposed to the soul of the killer. Interested on how the original concept could evolve into what was in the finished film, I decided that it might finally be time to check it out, especially with the new DVD that had been recently released.

Furthermore, the film is directed by Tom Holland, who directed a fantastic homage to eras of horror gone by in Fright Night (1985). In fact, with Halloween coming up, Fright Night is worth checking out if you have not already. Holland also wrote the screenplay to Psycho II (Franklin 1983), which shockingly is not a bad film. No, it is nowhere near Hitchcock, but it is a film that is better than it has any right to be. Anyway, Holland’s involvement was enough to push me over the edge into checking out Child’s Play.

Ultimately, Child’s Play proves to be is a film that is at war with itself. On one hand, you have a film about a child’s need for friendship, and how people prey upon this need. On the other hand, you have a film about a serial killer who was trained in voodoo and uses it to cheat death and get back at those caused him to be in his current predicament. Conceivably, there should be a way that these two premises could fit together, but more often than not they seem to be at odds. Furthermore, you will find a film that features some clever writing, directing, and subtlety that is welcome in a film about a killer doll. Then again, there is the film that has equally bad writing, with more than a few groan inducing lines and some poorly conceived scenes, which are directed in such an over the top way as to make the viewer laugh at just how much it does not gel with the other work around it.

But somehow, it still seems to work in some way.

Take the opening of the film. It begins with the final moments of killer Charles Lee Ray’s life (Brad Dourif, who also voices Chucky later in the film and in the future instalments), as he is abandoned by his partner, chased into a toy store by Officer Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), and is bleeding to death from gun shots. Coming across a Good Guy doll, Ray recites a voodoo enchantment which places his soul in a doll. However, the scene in which Ray passes his soul on is completely over done: a storm cloud gathers overhead, and lightning strikes down to complete the process, causing a minor explosion in the process. The whole sequence is a bizarre combination of overdone cop and criminal confrontation clichés with magic spells, setting the viewer up for an entirely different film.

Cut to the introduction of Andy (Alex Vincent). The scene follows Andy as he watches the Good Guys animated television series and makes breakfast, burning toast and causing a general mess as any young kid would. The scene is well constructed, playing with the audience’s lack of knowledge at this point: who is this kid and why is he performing these tasks by himself? Where are the adults? It turns out that Andy is in fact making breakfast-in-bed for his mother, belying the initial impressions of a problematic situation with the seemingly harmless childhood event.

However, the filmmakers complicate the matters through the Good Guys cartoon Andy watches. It is an insidious bit of animation and live action advertisement, in which a one of the Good Guys promises to be the friend of a child on the show before it slips into an advertisement for the Good Guy dolls, which promises similar types of adventure and companionship. The ad is a deft bit of filmmaking, subtly suggesting what Andy really wants in his desire of the doll, and starts what should be the heart of the film: a critique of children’s entertainment and toys which prey upon their insecurities.

Watching these two sequences back to back, it is surprising to see that they seem to belong to the same film, each demonstrating two entirely different sets of sensibilities both in subject matter and formal approach. Of course, the opening sequence could have worked as a fake out, setting the audience expectations up only to deliver a different film. However the rest ofChild’s Play bounces back and forth between these two different stories and approaches before jarringly trying to bring them together in a bizarre third act, which works about as well as one might expect. It is like Frankenstein’s monster: all the pieces are there, but do they really seem to go together? At best, the function well enough.

What is frustrating is that buried in this Frankenstein is a much more cohesive and thematically thought out film, and the DVD confirms as such as Mancini runs through what his original screenplay had been, seemingly a horror film/satire by way of the Paul Verhoeven /Edward Neumeier collaborations. While Mancini enjoys the finished film and praises it and his collaborators, in watching the documentaries on the film one cannot help but get annoyed at producer David Kirschner, who forced the serial killer/voodoo material into the film. Holland, who is more o less absent save archive material from the DVD, seems to have been interested in an entirely different approach himself, looking to make a more emotional film about the broken family. At least these family elements work along with the original intent of the film rather than come out of a different film altogether. With these different directions though, it is harder to give credit to anyone on the film for the elements that surprisingly work.

Case in point: I was ready before watching the special features to praise the filmmakers for allowing the audience to work by themselves to have to put together the details of Andy’s situation and his loneliness. The film never belabours the point of Andy’s loneliness, instead requiring the viewer to pay attention and make the connections. However, the DVD features then reveal that over half an hour was cut out of the film before release, none which is provided on the disc, leaving me to wonder if the filmmakers at one time did have material that made explicit what now remains implicit. In other words, are some of these aspects of the film sheer accidents? I’m not sure. Most certainly, it does not matter in the final product, but it leaves the viewer with the feeling that the whole work was a mess that just managed to work out well enough to leave a lasting impression. An accident.

At the end of it all, I am willing to recommend Child’s Play as more an oddity than a great film. It is fun, but when it is over, there is a chance that you will be more interested in the possible remake than this finished film, at least if Mancini returns to his original concept. I know I am.

Anyways, I hope to be back soon. Sorry for being late with this one: life been getting in the way.

(PS: I have just taken another pass in editing this review, and would like to say sorry for all the errors I missed first time through. I should really stop working on these things in dead tired state.
» The Quest (Van Damme 1996)


(See previous note PANIC N YEAR ZERO! to understand exactly what am doing)

The Quest (Van Damme 1996) would be easy to write off as a miserable film not worth any thought. However, if I did that, I wouldn’t have the challenge of trying to write something on the film now, would I? Thus, I have instead invest six hours (and counting) of my life over two days on this write up, in hopes of coming up with something more worthwhile than the film itself.

If Panic in Year Zero! (Milland 1962) is a testament to actor/director Ray Milland’s skills as both an actor and director, overcoming content and budget restrictions to forge a thematically and dramatically rich film, The Quest then is the exact opposite: a testament to Jean Claude Van Damme’s failings as an actor and filmmaker in the face of having the necessary budget and resources at his disposal to create a low aiming B-film for a major studio.

The Quest is another in line of martial arts tournament films that populated the 1980s and 1990s, with Van Damme appear in multiple entries in this genre, including Bloodsport (Arnold 1988) and The Kickboxer (DiSalle and Worth 1989) (Interestingly, the Van Damme staring adaptation of the Street Fighter video games eliminated the tournament storyline. Go figure). The film, set during the mid-1920s, follows Van Damme as Charles Dubois, a lousy pickpocket who looks after street kids in New York. Chased onto a boat of gun smugglers, Dubois is enslaved only to be “rescued” by Lord Dobbs (Roger Moore, whose run of James Bond films is still the worst in that franchise’s history), a former British Naval Officer and now full time pirate.

Again sold by Dobbs into slavery to work as a prize fighter, Dubois meets up again with Dobbs six months later with a proposition: buy his freedom, and they can work together to get to a Lost City in Tibet where a annual martial; arts tournament is being held to find the best fighter in the world. Beyond the title, the winner will also receive a massive solid gold dragon statue, and Dubois plans to steal it. With the help of a reporter (Janet Gunn), Dubois and Dobbs manage to con their way into acting as the attendants for an American boxing champion (James Remar) who has been invited to the tournament in order to make their way to the lost city. From thereon out, Dubois will learn the meaning of honour and redeem himself by ultimately fighting in the tournament himself.

While the premise is hardly original, all of hard body action hero Van Damme’s films have been derivative at best. What made the best of these films as entertaining and interesting as they were was scripts that showed just enough of a twist on the premises to be interesting and the stylish and energetic direction of filmmakers such as John Woo on Hard Target (1993) and Roland Emmerich on Universal Solider (1992), which knew how to take advantage of Van Damme’s physical skills as a martial artist and demonstrate well executed gunplay. Picking up the acting slack for Van Damme during scenes where he wasn’t required to beat the hell out of people (or was on screen at all) were casts of solid character actors. Would Hard Target have been have as much fun without Lance Henriksen chewing up all the scenery in sight? Or would Universal Solider done its cinematic duty without making sure Jerry Orbach managed to get a paycheque that didn’t have anything to do with Law and Order?

So why does The Quest fail? At its simplest, it’s that Van Damme the filmmaker has crafted a film that undermines his strengths and showcases all of his failings, where none of Van Damme’s various roles are able to compensate for the failings of the others.

First, the screenplay, which is based on a story co-written by Van Damme, is lazy on a spectacular level, failing to provide understandable motivations and coherent logic for events to take place. While hardly great writing, Hard Target at least made basic sense: we know what motivates the villains, we know why the world and the situations the characters face are the way they are. The Quest is unable to even motivate a reason for what appear to be Tibetan monks to hold the tournament and give a large golden dragon as a prize. This repeats itself frequently over the film: when James Remar’s boxer Maxie Devine declares to the monks (?) that he believes that Dubois is a better fighter capable of representing the United States than him, they declare that if Dubois fails in the first round, Devine will have to stay in the Lost City forever. Why? I have no idea.

Unfortunately, the film is structured in such a way that rather than dispersing the action throughout the film, it is saved mainly for the final third, which would be fine if the film wasn’t required to rest of the shoulders of Van Damme as an actor. Unlike the other noted Van Damme films where the supporting cast manages to support the film until the next moment where Van Damme breaks into battle or, at the very least, find a way to make use of his complete lack of acting ability. Here, Van Damme as the lead is stuck having to try and keep up with Roger Moore for charm or Remar for dedication to material not worth his time, constantly reminding the viewer that Van Damme simply can’t act and wishing that the film would have been about Roger Moore’s Dobbs instead.

But hey, at least once Van Damme gets to play action hero, the film should pick up, right? Unfortunately, Van Damme the action star is let down by Van Damme the director. While his direction has been mainly inept anyway throughout the entire film, the action scenes are particularly awful, staged with all the skill of a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers episode and filmed with even less skill. Each scene is a repetitive set of punching and kicking with no flair, which factored together with the PG-13 rating crushes any hope of the type of well designed action one would hope for.

I could keep going on with this, but there is little point. Van Damme comes dangerously close with The Quest to becoming the Jerry Lewis of action films, only salvaging himself from that “honour” by the sheer level of sincerity that seems to be on display, rather than the annoying smugness of Lewis. Unfortunately for Van Damme, that same sincerity is what manages to bring the film into Mystery Science theatre 3000 levels of mockery.

Next up will be what I can almost assume to be a better film, the third in this trilogy of films directed by their own stars: Clint Eastwood’s 1983 film Sudden Impact, the fourth of his Dirty Harry films.

» Panic in Year Zero! (Milland 1962)
I don’t know if anyone here reads Ain’t It Cool News, but recently the site has been running a feature titled “A Movie a Day” by regular site writer Quint, in which he rummages through what he claims is his thousands strong DVD collection to find films he hasn’t seen and fill his gaps in film history/geek knowledge. In an added twist, the author has decided that each film must be linked to the next through cast or crew members, creating an interesting weave of films which jump between genres and decades.

While not always the best written work, Quint’s series has proven to be quite infectious in its enthusiasm and in getting myself to A) look at my own holes of knowledge and B) look at the DVD’s I have yet to watch in my own collection. While I most certainly don’t have thousands of DVDs, have a limited budget, and course work I’ll be working on, I figure that it would be worth giving a similar attempt as Quint’s series so that A) I might finally get to watching those DVDs I’ve left lying by the wayside for whatever reason and B) keep me focused on working on continuously writing as to try and improve. And it occurs to me, what better way than inflicting, er, offering these ramblings of mine to you folks for thoughts and criticism?

Before starting with this first effort, I should note two things upfront: first, that I’ll probably be playing it much looser with what connections lead from one film to the next a number of times, giving the smaller pool of films to be drawing from, though I will endeavour to make sure there IS a connection; second, given the goal of the series, not every film is going to be one that seems worthwhile or overly interesting (one day I am going to have to watch that copy of 1996 Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 1996 directorial effort The Quest I have in my possession. Don’t ask why I have it). However, I hope to at least make writing about these films interesting, and maybe try and find the good in even the worst of them, no matter how bad.

With that, onto the first film, Panic in the Year Zero! (Milland 1962).
Late last year, I was working on a project about the adaptations of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, and picked up a DVD with the first attempted adaptation of the novel, The Last Man On Earth (Salkow 1964), a low budget production from noted B-film horror studio American International Pictures (AIP), producers of many early Roger Corman films. The disc was a double feature DVD which included another AIP production, Panic in the Year Zero!



Panic in the Year Zero! both stars and is directed by Ray Milland, star of Billy Wilder’s famed 1945 film The Lost Weekend (which I still need to see) and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Dial M for Murder, working from a script by John Morton and Jay Simms. The film is the story of the Baldwin family, consisting of patriarch Harry (Milland), wife Ann (Jean Hagen of Singin’ In the Rain [Donen and Kelly 1952]), son Rich (teen idol Frankie Avalon) and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchel), who are on their way to a camping vacation when they discover a mushroom cloud over the Los Angeles area. As word comes in over the car radio of the destruction of major cities over America (and Canada!), Harry decides the family needs to continue on their journey as opposed to returning home in order to protect themselves both from the possible fallout and possible lawlessness brought about as society seems to collapse around them. With each mile, the family is pushed by Harry’s increasing survivalist drive into extreme behaviour which pushes them outside the bounds of societal order.

The central thematic and dramatic crux of the film is the conflict between survival and the need to preserve society and civil order, and the point in which irrational panic begins to take control of the former. The masterstroke of the filmmakers is in their use of the stereotypical patriarchal organization of the Baldwin family to organize these themes and allow the audience to gradually witness the system of patriarchy and its values undermine themselves rather than resorting to didactic tactics.

While Ann occasionally voices questions about Harry’s increasingly aggressive measures to ensure his family’s safety, her willingness to submit with ease to Harry’s decisions allows the viewer to witness the contradictory, simplistic and dangerous aspects to Harry’s militaristic and survivalist attitudes for themselves. Harry frequently references potential threats towards the family in order to coerce their willingness to go along with his plans: however it is his behaviour that is closest to the threats he describes, turning to using weapons on store keeps and causing a massive traffic accident in order to get his family across a major highway. When Harry is finally confronted with what appears to be the threat he has been worried about, the situation only escalates because of Harry’s insistence of possessing firearms.

In perhaps the most damning moment of the film, Harry, having established his family’s base in a cave, preaches about the need to attempt to maintain a semblance of civilized life. However, unlike Ann’s previous and later moments of stating the need to maintain rational behaviour and trust in her fellow man, Harry’s view of civilization is limited to the need for daily shaving. Civilized behaviour is merely a performative act without substance.

Milland has a complex character in Harry, and his performance is up to par, allowing the viewer to keep sympathy for Harry even as he continues to dig his own grave and one for his family. The only other actor given substantial material to work with is Avalon as Harry’s son, and his performance is solid if not up to Milland’s work. Harry’s use of his son within the film is alternatively frightening and loving, as he tries to transform Rich into a man such as himself.

Where the film struggles is in its third act, in what I can only guess at the moment is due to the film being produced during the days of the Hay’s Code. After two acts of Harry’s increasing ethically questionable behaviour, the film attempts to shoehorn in a group of villains in order to mitigate the questions surrounding the actions of the Baldwin family. The filmmakers do their best within these constrictions to keep the moral ambiguity going however, as the last minute crisis of the film is the result of another of Harry’s fear based decisions, and the ending of the film refuses narrative closure, undermining the attempted moralizing on the part of two individuals at the film’s conclusion. The end result is fascinating to behold.

Milland’s direction of the film is solid if unspectacular, making the best of the low budget production values of AIP. Unfortunately these limitations occasionally become noticeable, including the use of some obvious stock footage and a poorly realized mushroom cloud. Thankfully the film is mostly an actor’s piece, allowing Milland to focus upon the drama and thematic issues rather than effects work and elaborate sets and staging. In Milland’s favour is also the solid screenwriting of Morton and Simms. A set of third act coincidences however are problematic, unnecessarily bringing back characters who are not necessary and whose roles could easily have been fulfilled by others.

Oh, and I could not talk about the film without discussing Les Baxter’s music. Having written music for many AIP pictures, Baxter here writes a very jazzy score which, while seemingly at odds with what is onscreen, strangely enough works for the film in the end. It gives the film an off kilter feel which matches the shifting morality of the family.

All in all, Panic in the Year Zero! is worth checking out, a thematically rich and dramatic B-film. Personally, I really want to check out more of these AIP films given my success thus far with them. However, in order to get a bit of possible pain out of the way, I think I am going to watch another film with actor directing himself next, if only to get it out of the way.

The Quest is next. God have mercy.
» Summer Film Review, Part One

Well, the summer film season is coming to an end again, and for the first time in a long time, I can say that this is a truly damn great set of large budget films.

Sure, there were a few clunkers as there always is, but on a whole we’ve had a summer of great genre films that either were just good, solid old fashion storytelling and a number that managed to hit levels of perfectly created art, challenging the audiences to material that reaches beyond the goal of mere entertainment. Even a few films that didn’t quite manage to hit greatness (or even being good) get a few points for trying a few more risks in terms of content and style than usual.

With this in mind, it’s time to look back over this summer and take stock of these films.

The Summer Heroes: Millionaires come to the Rescue

Two of the biggest films this summer were Iron Man and The Dark Knight, derived respectively from the ranks of long time rivals Marvel and DC comics. While in terms of story, tone and intentions each film is remarkably different from one another, both films surprisingly attempt to both grapple with not only a modern world of terror within the West and the ramifications of this state, but also with the ever increasingly interrelated worlds of politics, business and criminals, the place of technology in this world and the moral questions surrounding how the individual confronts these problems.

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man is a much lighter work compared to that of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but is still covers material not usually associated with the typical summer blockbuster: the military industrial complex and the responsibility of both the individual and the country in addressing its role in global violence framed within the context of a superhero origin story. While lacking the complex irony of 1987’s classic Robocop (Verhoven) which addressed similar concerns, Favreau’s film establishes a world in which its characters move from social and political naiveté to a larger awareness is a step in the right direction, but is not one in which the evolution of the characters and issues stops and which the audience is confronted with some morally ambiguous issues. After all, the film’s protagonist IS a weapons designer/manufacturer, partier and developing alcoholic , creating a character that is hardly in keeping with a morally virtuous individual.

 Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr), the film’s protagonist, has by the film’s end accepted the larger responsibility for the problems which he has caused through his ignorance.  However, it is still clear by the conclusion that Stark is still far from over in his transformation into a responsible citizen of the world: his declaration of his identity as a superhero and continued bad boy mentality belay the moral complexities which the sequel will hopefully address. Simply ceasing the production of weapons and acting as form of international policing agent might not be enough in the mission he has taken upon himself at this point: not everyone is going to be a clear cut villain as Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), and not everyone is going to appreciate Stark’s brash tactics. How many people are going to be receptive to a millionaire trying to clear his guilt through acting as a superhero, and for those hurt it may never be enough. Furthermore, what of Stark’s tactics? The contradiction in building weapons, even to destroy weapons, is a central issue that must be addressed in a future film, drawing from the Iron Man classic tale from the 1980s, the Armor Wars saga.

But I get ahead of myself. Putting aside the larger themes of the film for a second, Iron Man is simply the best executed superhero origin narrative to date, and easily Marvel’s best cinematic effort. Placing character and story first above the action scenes and special effects, Favreau crafts  a masterful film that fully sucks in the viewer and manages to get the viewer to invest in  the characters to a point in which, when they are placed in danger, real suspense and weight is brought to the proceedings. While certain plot points may go by too fast and Stane isn’t as fully developed as a villain as he could be, these are mainly small nitpicks that do not distract from the film. Furthermore, Downey Jr’s performance is brilliant to the point to which any flaws are overcome just by the sheer charm, energy and joy he brings to the proceedings. Well done to Favreau sticking to his guns on casting the man.

Now, as for The Dark Knight...what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Nolan and crew have crafted the most thematically and cinematically complex superhero film ever put to screen, thrusting typical acts of city saving aside for more interesting questions of moral salvation and degradation, where the villain of the film’s main goal is to corrupt the souls of those trying to make a difference...and the heroes fall for it hook, line and sinker. Much like Heath Ledger’s over-covered (in review and general media terms) Joker, Nolan has made a cinematic film in which the audience is never on stable ground in terms of just whom and what they are rooting for, where the heroes make decisions you don’t want them to, and where the only way to win is to be hated for doing the right thing.

Examining The Dark Knight’s 2005 predecessor Batman Begins (Nolan), one comparable scene from each film speaks volumes about for far the series has evolved. In Batman Begins, a classic scene is that of Batman’s interrogation of corrupt officer Flass (Mark Boone Jr.), where our hero plays yo-yo with Flass for information. Part of the fun of the scene is watching the slightly moronic and most certainly criminal Flass receive the scare of his life. The safety net of the scene however is that we know Batman won’t actually hurt Flass:  there is not a need to; it would break the Dark Knight’s code.

The Dark Knight however contains a corresponding scene involving an incredibly aggressive Batman interrogating a mobster named Maroni (Eric Roberts in a role that forgives just how terrible his Master was back in the 1996 Doctor Who TV film). Unlike Flass, Maroni possesses more of a brain and believes he has the situation all figured out: Batman won’t drop him and kill him, given that at that height it won’t work. At this point, Nolan pulls away the safety net: Batman isn’t planning to kill him, but instead proceeds to break Maroni’s legs through the drop. Nolan executes the scene perfectly, removing any chance for the audience’s enjoyment of the moment as it is confronted with difficult moral issue of understanding why our hero is torturing the villain, and yet wishing that he wasn’t lowering himself to this level. After all, Batman is a moral guardian, isn’t he?

Nolan dispenses with any notion of Batman as a simplistic moral authority figure, instead revealing a character capable of making flawed decisions that ask an audience to critically examine our hero. Nolan repeats this throughout every character in the film, with the film’s only moral center point dying in a key moment of the film. Nolan has in many ways crafted a film that offers a number of Biblical parallels, where the titular hero of the film, Gotham’s symbolic hero, must take on the sins of its supposed golden symbol of the best of humanity, and like Christ becomes an outcast to the very people he is there to help. Nolan’s use of Biblical parallel is in many ways far more def and skilled than the heavy handed Christ imagery of Brian Singer’s Superman Returns (2006). It is indeed within these outcast characters that Nolan shapes his visions of heroism.

Wall E: Hard Sci-Fi for then Family

While far more gentile than The Dark Knight, Pixar’s Wall E is its equal in every way, crafting a pure science fiction cautionary film that also happens to be an emotionally rewarding romance, adventure film and cultural satire that’s as subversive as anything the Simpson’s did at their peak, attacking both the corporate, government and cultural structures that have encouraged and generated unfettered consumption. Furthermore, Wall E is a film that honestly has more to say about the simulacra than The Matrix ever did.

In an ingenious conceit in which humanity’s past is represented in video footage of a very real Fred Willard as Earth’s past president and other humans, while all humanity in its present form is digitally animated as the robotic characters of the film, the filmmakers have frighteningly taken the concept of the loss of the real to its farthest reaches, to the point in which the real has become fake by comparison to the digital world around it. Humanity is no longer a separate entity apart from the world of mediated, technological reality, reduced to being part of the system as a whole to the point where touching humanity is found within the slave labour based robots.

WALL E is in every way as great a piece of science fiction filmmaking as BLADE RUNNER, ALIEN, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, DARK CITYVIDEODROME and 2001: A SPACE ODYSEY. Indeed, much like the despotic and hopeless BLADE RUNNER, WALL E is frightening because of how disturbingly close a future such as the one presented might be. Indeed, it may even be more unsettling in that while BLADE RUNNER wears its dystopia on its sleeve, presenting a visually rich vision of hell, WALL E presents a world so slick that the truth remains hidden and ignored in blissful ignorance. Sound like a society you know?

Smart Disguised as Stupid: the Savage Brilliance of Step –Brothers

Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are sly bastards. On one hand, they have made a film that appears on its surface to be a film which aims for the lowest common denominator, throwing lewd and crude remarks and behaviour off the screen at the audience as quickly as they can. In reality, they have crafted one of the darkest comedies about irresponsible parenting to have ever ended up on screen, a fact only disguised by the sheer extremes they go to in their exploration.

Early in the film, the respective parents of the step-brothers of the title (Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen) ask why they think they are still living with and supporting their sons. In both cases, neither one seems to ever come to realize that it themselves that are to blame for their current juvenile state of their sons’ lives: an excess of wealth, selfish focus and lack of proper discipline allow themselves to try and pass the buck onto other individuals, paying for therapy for their kids while refusing to participate in it themselves; ignoring the true needs of their kids and enabling their worst behaviour. While Brendan (Ferrell)  and Dale (Reilly) are most certainly unsympathetic and horrible people, they are also the victims of the film, the bastard offspring of parents who’d rather baby them or simply chuck them out of their lives rather than offer true help.

What’s worse, the film presents that the visions of success that are supported by these individuals are possibly worse than what happens to Brendan and Dale. Brendan’s successful brother Derek (Adam Scott) is a monster, emotionally and physiologically abusive to those around him, successful through the destruction of those around him and doing his best to encourage the same out of his son. The horror is that his vileness is obvious and yet is still supported by all around him. In a bizarre flashback to a school performance from both Brendan and Derek, their mother recalls how Derek sabotaged Brendan’s attempt to win a school talent show with a performance of classical opera, while Derek would go onto win by lip sinking Ice, Ice Baby. The kicker is that the mother admits to joining in on mocking Brendan and offers odd admiration to the inept work of Vanilla Ice. Derek’s mean spirited  superficial nature becomes a repeated joke in the film as being entirely seductive to those around him save Brendan and Dale, presenting a world where ruthless and backstabbing selfishness not only plays out in the family but within society as a whole.

The conclusion of the film is a hysterical jab at the absurdity of the possibility for redemption for these characters, manufacturing an insane set of circumstances which subvert the desire to see these characters mature: the conclusion is so simplistic, insane and improbable that the film undermines the happy ending by suggesting on only through mutual insanity can the audience find a happy ending.

 

 


» Summer films!
Greetings! Long time, no post. Been back home, working, and on diet, the final point I'll talk about later. But onto the main event!

Summer film season has started once again, and it has managed to get off to its best start in years with the release of IRON MAN, Marvel's first film as an independent studio. The film may indeed be Marvel's best effort to date, even pushing Spider-Man 2, Marvel's previous title holder for best film, off the radar, and begin's Marvel's attempt to start an entire, larger universe, which will continue with this summer's June release THE INCREDIBLE HULK, staring Edward Norton as the purple pants green giant. 

However, what has been seen of the Hulk thus far has been...questionable at best. While Marvel is attempting to do their best to distance themselves from Ang Lee's interesting but flawed preceding film from 2003, reactions thus far have been questionable at best. No doubt a great cast has been brought together, but the footage, or at least the way in which it has been cut, has failed to bring about too much excitment, not unlike the strangley cut INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS, which feel oddly sloppy for a Spielberg and Lucas production. Indeed, the theatrical trailer for the STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS release as a build up to the weekly TV series was better edited. Both Hulk and Indy deserve better advertisement. Here's hoping that the trailers are not indicative of what the final products will be.

Then, there is SPEED RACER, a film to unite family audiences and acid users together in the same theater. Well, that was the intent anyway: the film is on track to being the biggest financial bomb of the summer, if not the year. Indeed, no single film this year I think has devided audiences so much: some outright hate the film, while others love it to pieces. So where do I fall?

Well, pretty close to the love it catagory actually, which took me by surprise given that I was expecting to hate it. The film is no doubt flawed, being about 20 minutes too long (given that the film is about the sport of racing, built upon speed, the 2 hour plus running time is a bit much), and there is the occasional bit of bad scripting, the film is now part of the proud herritage of films which attempt to re-create an entire universe on screen as it was presented in the books, including DICK TRACY, THE ROCKETEER, and SIN CITY. Of course, all but the last of those tanked at the box office as well, so, (shrug).

So, general thoughts on the rest of the summer films that interest me:\

INDY IV: Please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck...
INCREDIBLE HULK: Diddo the above
GET SMART: I have hopes for this one. Only seen bits an pieces of the old show, so I can't claim to be a die hard fan with expectations. But the film has Alan Arkin in it, which will at least make the film entertaining on a small level even if the rest of the film falls flat.
THE LOVE GURU: I honestly don't know what to say about this one. It looks so completely strange, yet I dread it being a piece of crap. We shall see.
WALL E: Cannot describe how excited I am for this one! Pixar, robots, AND PETER GABRIEL DOING THE MUSICAL SCORE!
HANCOCK: I dug the trailer, however the reports from behind the scenes, which include re-shoots now at the last minute and attempts to tone down the R rated material for a PG-13 rating makes me hope that a director's cut which fully restores the film will appear later on DVD.
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY: Hot damn! About time number 2 came out!
THE DARK KNIGHT: Do I even need to explain how amazing this film looks?
X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE - doesn't matter how good this film will be: The Dark Knight is going to kill it. Farewell Mulder and Scully: it was great knowing you.
THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE  DRAGON EMPEROR - Jet Li and the abcense of Stephen Summers as director is the only thing giving me any hope. Then again, it also lost Rachel Wiez, so why on earth do I even care?
TROPIC THUNDER: perhaps the most insane looking film of the summer, based entirly on the crazy plot point of what happens to Robert Downey Jr.'s character.

Anyways, back later with summer reading list, my diet, and more stuff.
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