Thursday, June 2, 2011


(Almost sounds kinda dirty, don't it?)

Midnight in Paris is wonderful.  I could use that word a lot and I have before, but it would take more words out of the dictionary than would be prudent to try and come up with something that works just as well as that.  Woody Allen, a director who for most of his career has toyed around with the line between reality and fantasy, how we see it in cinema and literature and theater and in ourselves and what we do day to day, has made one of his most memorable comedies by not futzing around with it anymore and just diving in: taking a character from present day and putting him back in time to Paris in the 1920's.  There he meets em all, and to which I'll give a brief list in a moment, and it changes his perspective on life as a whole.

This isn't entirely random: the character, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is already in Paris with his fiance (Rachel McAdams), is a hack screenwriter who can't seem to get past what to do with his novel, who to show it to, how to change it if needed, and he's stuck in the past (indeed his book is set in a 'Nostalgia Shop' filled with nick-nacks and other memorabilia - in other words, he's a geek, but for fine culture and literature).

As he walks the streets without any inspiration one night in Paris a car from waay back in the way (or, if you prefer, a 'Way-Back Machine') drives up and a few friendly gentlemen and ladies ask Gil to come on in.  Then off and away he is to sometime in the 1920's in Paris, though the joke (at first) is that he's too stunned to process it.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, no way!  And Zelda Fitzgerald too! HEMINGWAY!  He announces himself as fucking HEMINGWAY!  And he's as (hilariously) douchey as you might expect!

Needless to say this is one of those time-travel movies where the mechanics off the 'how' Gil gets back in time isn't entirely important, however for those interested Allen makes it so that other people *in* this 1920's Paris, like Marion Cotillard's Adrianna, can also go back in time if they start feeling nostalgic (there's even one joke near the end, a howl-inducing kind of joke, that has the time travel angle done for a nothing side character).  Nor is it at all bewildering, if one takes that extra leap of disbelief step, as to why it's only after midnight and that time seems to speed up ahead to another time when Gil comes back.  If someone else were to get in the car and go to the same time Gil is there would shit get disrupted?  Eh, whatever. 

What makes it entertaining and charming and a lot of fun is seeing the interactions Gil has with these historical figures, especially Hemingway who comes off like the big brusque brute he was (or rather that HE was the greatest writer since you either write great or you write lousy, and that he hated other writers because he saw them immediately as competitors), and then later the likes of the 'surrealists' like Bunuel, Man-Ray and Dali (also a one-name man), played by Adrien Brody as a classic nut.

But how do the other people back in 'reality' take it?  Needless to say Inez (McAdams) finds her would-be fiance to possibly have a brain tumor, and her parents like him less - some great political comedy in there, by the way - and Gil's main conflict is whether he should stick with the fantasy, of the car coming by same time every night as the bell tolls (and it seems to only come for those who want it, for Inez it just doesn't come when he tries to bring her along), or back in the reality where he has crap intellectual competition like Paul (hilariously deadpan Michael Sheen) or just a whole career of hack screenwriting.  Who needs that when you got Gertrude Stein reading and analyzing your novel?  And who needs the Paris of today when you got the Paris of old, swinging jazz, and gobsmackingly beautiful people like Marion Cotillard?  And Picasso!!

You're waiting for a train, you don't know how you... wait, wrong dream, sorry :)

Allen has a light but firm touch with this kind of material, and like Match Point he seems to find some fertile ground in a new location; more than that film, here he genuinely loves the city - to the point of opening his film with a montage of images to sweet melody ala Manhattan only not quite as iconic - and his protagonist is taken so fully with it that it's like a delightful infectious disease.  For fans of his 1985 classic The Purple Rose of Cairo there will also be recognition of the theme of escapism, but here he takes it a step further.  When people are faced with such a choice between a world that has firm lines and the horrors of the day (pollution, war, terrorism, the Tea Party), why not stay back in time?  Or, if not that, how about bringing a fresh perspective?

One other note on this film, which has perfect pace and just the right bright and dark cinematography whenever needed by Darius Khondji - Owen Wilson, the star here, makes for one of Allen's most amiable and spot on "Woody" versions.  Maybe it is a kind of version of him, I don't know, though it's hard not to see the director playing the part some thirty, thirty-five years ago.  And for the first time in I can't remember when,Wilson delivers a genuinely funny performance, albeit with many wide-eyed reaction shots at what he sees around him, but also with some real-deal comic timing.  There's a scene where he has a problem with a pair of earrings he's trying to snoop away from one place to another, and how he resolves it is just impecable.  He, like the film, made me smile ear to ear when I wasn't chuckling with laughter, even at the stuff only I would probably find funny out of anyone in the theater (three words: The Exterminating Angel, nuff said).

No, please Woody, save me from doing Marmaduke 2!

So go, see Paris through the eyes and comic heart of Woody Allen, with lots of beauty and spot-on historical references.  It's the most fun I've had at the movies since Rango, and luckily a great one too.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


And you're asking... what?

Helldriver comes from the Japanese movie company Sushi Typhoon - which, well, just click on the link to see their wares - and from the director Yoshihiro Nishimura, who directed such 'classics' as Tokyo Gore Police and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl.  I put quotes around 'classics' not to demean the films, they are a lot of fun... and especially disturbing if you haven't seen your share of Japanese exploitation films (or, in Japan, just another Friday night at the cinema).

They're crudely done but with a lot of professionalism and done super-fast as well (at a Q&A with the director - and at the end of this blog I'll put a picture from it which is AMAZING - he mentioned that he shot Gore Police and this new film two weeks each... which just makes my head hurt, I have to digress), and LOTS and LOTS of BLOOD and GORE and BODY PARTS and um GIGANTIC PENIS DEMON MONSTER THINGS!  IN CAPS!

"WHO'S LAUGHING NOW!!  Uhhh, No, this hurts, this fucking HURTS!

Within these dimensions though, Nishimura is a wildly talented director, one who works in a low-budget horror world and just goes to town with anything that he can think of as being cartoony.  And in the case of Helldriver he jumps off of a horror premise that shouldn't be too unfamiliar to horror fans (not even for 'fans' of Plan 9 From Outer Space): an alien presence comes to Earth and turns everyone into zombies.  That is to say the alien presence embeds itself in the body of a woman - a real nasty bitch who treats her step-daughter Rikka (Eihi Shina of Audition fame) like crap, and in the process of becoming this Mean-Queen-Zombie she rips out Rikka's poor little heart!  But as the zombie-apocalypse is taking place (with the neat twist that there's big biological antlers attached to all the zombies heads that is what needs to be cut off as opposed to just the head), Rikka gets a metal heart Iron Man style and has an ultimate task: kill that bitch and get her heart back!

There is much more, such as - and what Nishimura at the Q&A said was just a coincidence and not meant to be a comment on the Japanese earthquake that happened well after filming finished anyway - a divide in Japan between those who are infected (the millions to the north) and those not (to the south).  A big divide also comes with the handful of people, starting with the Prime Minister and trickling down to others, that these zombies are just "misunderstood" and need to be treated like any other human, to which this ensues mass chaos.  But then there is another point in the story, where the film takes off into its REAL craziness (and you know when it is because, and I'm not kidding, when the title card for the movie comes up - a full ONE HOUR into the running time!  this got a big applause from the audience that attended like moth to the flame, but I digress). 

Don't even ask what that is around her head. maybe a Zomlusk?

What is this craziness?  Well it starts off with a sorta parody of Battle Royale as about a dozen 'candidates' including Rikka and a couple of her 'friends' she's picked up along the way, are in those chambers where if you move one inch you get poked to death, and a cute video comes on with a hyperactive Japanese girl telling everyone that they have a choice - go and fight the zombies through the haze the Zombie-Wasteland, or go free (to which anyone who presses the 'go free' button dies instantly, always the case with those chambers really).

So Rikka and a few others take the daring attempt at going through the thicket of zombies... and not just regular zombies, but zombies that fling other zombies in catapults as they drive forward in their Jeep, and zombies who are like zombie pin-cushions, and a zombie with a zombie baby attached to it that it can fling and have eat its customers, or a zombie that (which had me rolling-on-the-floor with laughter) has little tentacle hand things that flap about as the zombie its attached to controls it.  Weird.

"That horn is SO Punk rock 2011" GQ

And completely, totally maniacal in design and execution, like Loony Tunes and any other crazy cartoon... actually MUCH crazier, thrown into this mayhem of zombies everywhere.  Hell, Nishumura doesn't stop there with individual zombies (and by the way not everyone turns into one, such as one girl in the Jeep who gets attacked on all sides by zombie heads and parts of people and gets eaten down to the bone!)  No, that would be too easy.

A hectic chase ensues after the Jeep faces off against the Big-Bad-Tattoo-Hair-What-the-FUCK Zombie is attacking it - this zombie being once Rikka's asshole-step-father, brilliantly played by an actor who is totally nuts (can't find his name right now but he's the one in the picture above - and it's just bananas on crack.  The Zombie gets other parts of zombies and makes a gigantic zombie car to chase after the Jeep, and then other things happen, like, uh... should I spoil it?  All I'll say from here is that you'll never look at a Zombie-Western the same way again.  Yee-haw?

Sadaam had nothing on this.

This is Gonzo for people who now look at Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas or Dawn of the Dead as kid's stuff.  This is so far out there in how much Nishimura and his special FX team push the creature designs and comedy that you just end up laughing at yourself for laughing so hard at this.  And of course there are a few moments that had even an audience like the one at the Q&A going "ohhhh!" in disgust, but why carp?  If you buy the ticket for something like Helldriver, which is created at first as an outrageous political satire (with a little bit of religion thrown in, the only scene in this Director's Cut I thought could've been trimmed), then as a splatter flick.  But as a splatter flick is so takes over the stage, and even from a fine actress like Shiina who does her best to be bad-ass in poise against the other crazies she's riding with.

Um... groovy?

Helldriver does have a coherent story, at least for the most part when it's not jumping back and forth in chronology too much, and it does have a few legitimately impressive special effects, at least when it's not going so far into Shock-ville to which Nishimura does it so well.  Yet it's hard not to ignore that it is probably shlock on a level that would make Lloyd Kaufman wince.  By the time they get to the climax of the film, which has the Bitch-Queen-Zombie-What-Have-You with the cackling laugh and way of fucking with Rikka since, you know, she is wearing her heart more than on her sleeve, you almost might feel tired from how far things have been pushed.  But the joy of it all is that it's so shamelessly entertaining, and wants to go even further after that practical show-stopper of the chase through the Zombie-Wasteland, that you either go for it all the way or you walk out after the first scene.

For me, I was laughing hysterically through most of it, smiling through the rest of it, and it's scathing assault on anything with 'taste' so to speak that is too wonderful for words.

Nishimura and Shiina at the Q&A... and yes, that is a baby attached to his Sumo-Diaper... :)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011



These are two films I saw the other day, and while they don't have much in common aside from the directors being both Korean, here they are anyway bunched together: the hilariously stupid and asinine DRAGON WARS: D-WAR (by Hyung-rae Shim) and A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (by Jee-woo Kim)

From the looks of just the poster of this movie, you know what you're going to get.  In fact, I might actually want this if it were a box of cereal just to get that initial sugar rush to head on over to work.  It looks super-cool and super-goofy, two things that would (or could) make the inner 12 year old in me giddy.  It doesn't, but the movie isn't ill-intentioned or directed by someone who is a total blockhead... okay, he is a little.  The director Shim is like a naive kid who has a bunch of toys to play with (and a 70 million dollar budget, which seemed high to me at first until halfway through the movie), and hasn't really updated his screenplay since first writing it in the 8th grade after watching hours of D&D.  Or something like that, I can dream, can't I?

It's one of those stories that takes off from lots and lots of exposition, the big talker coming from Not-Asian-but-Should-Be master Robert Forster who in a flashback at the start of the movie gives young Ethan Kendrick the backstory of an ancient kingdom or whatever 500 years ago that had a protector of a woman who when the time was right would bust out into dragon form to fight the 'evil' dragons.  Now it's 500 years later and somehow due to some kind of prophetic mark or pendant (no, actually the mark is on the woman, in present day named one Sarah Daniels), they have to fight a bunch of dragons who will come to Earth (LA that is, that mythical-weary town) and tear shit up.  That's about it really by way of plot.  But then again, would you expect more?

There is some shady-stuff with a government organization trying to track what is going on with these dragons and other strange goings-on, but it's really about how Ethan and Sarah find one another through some crazy past-telepathic visions (mostly for Sarah who does the typical 'cover room with markings' schitck that shows how crazy she is), and then have to face off against the dragons... eventually.  Up until halfway through the movie it's just this boring back-and-forth characterizations, with a little Robert Forster thrown in, who at one point just shows up to stop some thugs from ganging up on Sarah and then disappears without a trace, and Craig Robinson of The Office as the black friend.  No joke there, he just is.

But hey, who needs story?  What about the gorram dragons?  Well, most of them are the "bad" ones, coming down from the sky and reigning fire throughout the city, or sometimes just on a house (damn insurance premiums will go up), and then the military comes in to try and stop them... with not much success.  But ah, there are other mythological entities like, eh, Dubacks (those big green creature things the Stormtroopers rode on Tatooine in SW4 A New Hope), and other creatures that come forward in a big city action set-piece that could be pretty awesome... if it looked finished.  While the money went into these colossal dragons and other creatures flying in the air and getting into mayhem in the city (and also elsewhere like when they chase after Ethan and Sarah as they drive around), the VFX doesn't seem complete, as if the technology was there but they stop short of the full render.  In other words, close (not The Asylum company level), but no cigar.

So what are we left with?  A story with paper-thin characters mostly - and when they're not they're written in that weirdly-ambiguous style like with Forrester's character - and with a bunch of silly special effects.  But I don't think that the director is necessarily stupid with his movie.  He's a big fan of old martial-arts-dragon culture, or movies that feature it, and there's a certain tone to the movie that says 'we're harmless'.  That's fine, and while I cannot recommend the movie because it is flawed and doesn't have good acting (those two people playing Ethan and Sarah suck the life out of their scenes, especially as Sarah has to act crazy for the first half of the movie), but it's meant to be silly B-movie Saturday matinee stuff for kids and the like.  I could imagine having fun with it as long as you don't for a second take it seriously.  It's stupid-bad but not bad-bad is what I'm getting at.

The only question is if they'll ever make a sequel, continuing the mythical lineage of the 500 years past style and have a Dragon Wars-E... eh?

Sometimes it's good to just watch a movie that has a part of it that is just bug-fuck insane.  Jee-woo Kim's A Tale of Two Sisters posits itself (at least I thought it was going in) another horror movie like 'Ju-on' or 'Grudge' style where a ghost or ghosts-plural won't let a family or some wide-eyed teenage girls have any peace.  And it does have some of that.  Maybe.  But it's really more like a domesticated version of Shutter Island where we don't know really what to believe due to the character's fragmented point of view.  Could it all be just ghosts or demons or whatever of a slain family member?  Or is it the aggression of the step-mother of these two sisters manifesting itself.  Or there's just some crazy shit going on, Repulsion style, baby.

These two young teenage sisters, Bae Soo-mi and Bae Soo-yeon, return home after spending a time at a mental institution (this I was only partially clear on as the first scene of the film has sister Soo-mi (Su-jeong Lim, the older and possibly crazier of the two), in an interview with a doctor that I thought was the end-of-the-movie-at-beginning kind of deal).  They're with their father, who is still not altogether with himself after the loss of his wife and the mother of his kids, but with another woman, the on-the-surface nice but really mean Eun-joo (Jung-ah Yum, excellent at making awkward dinner scenes).

As they spend more time together something doesn't seem quite right, especially with some freaky-all-too-real dreams Soo-mi has, in particular one that is a dream unto itself and when she wakes up she's still dreaming but in nightmare form as she's in her bedroom and one of those scary-what-the-fuck hair-people-demons is riding up along the wall towards her.  There are also other strange occurrences, like doors closing by themselves, weird sounds at night coming from the kitchen, and images of hardcore death (think like Shining level, that's a good indicator), and all the while the younger of the girls, who doesn't talk much (a wonderful actress doing a lot with a little, Guen-Young Moon), watches as her sister gets the brunt of the "what the HELL is going on in this house?" questions from the father and step-mother... until a cabinet comes into play.

What makes this movie as effective as it is is not so much the story, even as it takes some captivating turns that kept me on the edge anticipating every next whiplash of emotion (be it from the sisters or when the step-mother throws a dinner party where one of the guests goes into an epileptic fit after a bad jokey-story she tells), but atmosphere.  This film, more than other sorta-Grudge style movies, Kim's style is creating this house as another character, and time as one of those elements that works against the characters.  There is a sense that anything can happen in this place, and Kim keeps anticipation paramount; he and his cinematographer make this a foreboding place almost because of how ordinary it looks, or how it does just on the surface.  As the ghosts of this place, or what may just be in the mind, are opened up the terror ratchets up.

What is suggested, as often happens in horror and is an excellent rule of thumb to follow, creates more in the viewer's mind.  And Kim's direction is to suggest a little, then show some, and then let that fester in the mind as it does for the characters as well.  There's a point about halfway or maybe two-thirds through the film where it becomes clear that this could all be just in the character's head, and that her mania over her mother's death creates this visual-audio paranoia and dread (and those details which become much clearer only in the last fifteen minutes, ironically making things even *more* confusing for me till I have a rewatch).  This makes it richer as an experience, since not-knowing is one of those wonderful feelings to have during a horror movie.  But by the end we have known these people, or think we do, and that could be enough.

::translated from Korean:: "Boo"

Tale of Two Sisters- not to be confused with its American remake for some reason retitled The Uninvited- is creepy and bloody, and disturbing for how palpable it is as a story of family disintegration first; from the understanding but broken father to the believably wicked step-mother to Su-jeong Lim as a protagonist who should be the one among this cast to trust, and it's just not the case.   It's secondly a traditional ghost-haunted-house story, and in that department it's not a disappointment either (there's even blood in the floorboards for Heaven's sake).  But if there is one minor criticism to end off on here it's sense of mystery is so strong a couple of times I started to feel lost in the story.  With this kind of direction though - and Kim would later make the near-classic The Good, the Bad & the Weird and the best film of 2011 so far I Saw the Devil - it's a chance worth taking.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Papa Mike's Video #3 - Robert Altman's THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK

I perhaps watched That Cold Day in the Park in a manner which the director Robert Altman would not have approved of... or maybe he would.  I started to watch the film pretty late at night, and about an hour into the film I started to get tired - not of the film but just general late-night exhausted-eyes, that sort of thing.  So I stopped about halfway through, and then picked up on the rest of the film a few days later.  I hadn't forgotten none of the film by this point, but it wasn't quite so fresh as to be totally connected to the rest of the picture, which then separated it almost precisely by way of set up and pay-off of the premise, so as I was not all there for the start of it I was wide awake for what happens with these charters together.  Maybe my reaction would've been different had I seen it all at full attention, or if I had stuck with it and saw the second half like some strange dream or nightmare even, which is what it sort of becomes.

The film That Cold Day in the Park starts out like some chilly but oddly hopeful dream and then turns into the nightmare, but not at all suddenly.  Frances Austen (Sandy Dennis of 'Virginia Woolf' fame) is a woman living by herself (gasp!) in a spacious apartment; whether she comes all from money or had an ex I'm not sure, but whatever it is she's with dinner guests at her home one day and sees a boy of twenty outside in the rain.  Why he's there she's not sure, but she keeps looking anyway, and sees possibly a kinship of loneliness (as she is with people she is still alone by herself, by choice really).  When they leave she still sees him, and finally goes out and brings him inside.  She gets him out of those wet clothes, gets him a big blanket, and takes care of him sorta Motherly with a bed and some food and then a nice hot bath.  Then he becomes an obsession to her, in part because (mayhap) he can't speak, which is also a choice on his part.

Like a voyeur, seeing for not quite the first time
How much of an obsession he is to her isn't entirely clear; at first one could suspect it's a story of love that could blossom between the two, which, indeed, sounds pretty corny.  Hell it could even sound like a soft-core porn, which in other hands isn't beyond reason being made in 1969 after the MPAA was created.  But Altman takes it in a different direction of just being about the characters and exploring this situation with some, well, honesty I guess.  Roger Ebert in his review said that he found the situation totally implausible, but I think once you can give the film this benefit of the doubt, then you can go a step further into how disturbed this woman really is or would be.  It would be hard to make this movie today, but at a time when women were getting a little more curious sexually and 'boys' a little more 'free' in their own way (or just without as many sexual or moral consequences) it's not too far off.

I got into the story on that kind of slightly (or mostly) chilly dramatic level where Altman is channeling Ingmar Bergman's style: people who do want to connect together, and what actual emotion really makes into people, which is to disarm them.  Looking back on the whole what's interesting in the first half about the boy - which makes Michael Burns, who comes of flatter than Sandy Dennis by a lot (albeit she subtly steals the show in her icy demeanor and 'quiet' voice) - is that he doesn't know what to make of this woman.  She doesn't want sex straight off, and when she does decide to do it (which comes with an awkward visit to the gyno) he's not really into it any way, it becomes a different sort of relationship between two people who don't know each other and it's fine that way (maybe like a pre-not-really-sexual Last Tango).

"It's not what you think, he just has a bad back from all that sex, I mean, uh, moving the cabinet, yeah!"
By this point the film takes another turn as the characters reveal their disconnect: she real need, he real 'whatever', though totally respectful of the situation she has for him, which is shown when his ditsy sister stops by unannounced and takes a bath.  And also by this point there's a darker undercurrent here that is still sticking to what is up with these characters, and how Dennis especially plays it as someone who could be kind and yet is really desperate and alone... which is something that could be relatable for people, up to a point.  Altman and his writer do cross another point near the end and it gets truly disturbing (the kind of last five minutes where I was just holding my face going 'oh God' based on a plot turn that I won't dare say here), but I was still with it by then.

What That Cold Day in the Park offers for the receptive viewer is a damned good story told with enough conviction and occasionally turning to dark humor (i.e. when Frances pours her soul out for the Boy and it turns out he's not even there) to justify its existence.  It's also nice to see Altman find the start (if not completely) his style of tracking from afar, like a voyeur who wants to keep watching even as it's a little too odd or painful.  It's a psychological thriller where most of the thrills are interior instead of exterior, and the air of unpredictability makes for fascinating viewing, despite missing greatness through a less-than-great Michael Burns.  It's like a Lifetime movie for, well, people looking for a movie with artistry (i.e. Laszlo Kovacs photography)!