Friday, March 27, 2009

BUFF - Hausu (House)

[Oh, and while I'm at it we should go ahead and make this the The Weekly Alternative to The Haunting In Connecticut.]

Dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi

Viewed: From the Balcony

On the final night of the Boston Underground Film Film Festival, Padraic and I were able to catch up with two of the films that really stood out from this year's line-up. The first was an obscure oddity from Japan circa 1977 called Hausu (or House). And no it is certainly not the inspiration for the awesome 1986 William Katt movie. Honestly I'm at a loss for any comparisons that could give someone even an inkling of what Hausu is like. And not only visually, but tonally as well. The movie jumps from melodrama to slapstick, from seemingly heartfelt moments and scares to goofy sight gags in the blink of an eye. Words cannot do this film justice. Simply put, go see it at your first opportunity -- ideally with a game audience like we had at the BUFF. Word is there will be a midnight showing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre (note that 3 of the best movies I've seen recently - Time Crimes, Let the Right One In and Chocolate are scheduled for a midnight showing in the next couple months) sometime soon. I may see you there as this one is definitely worth repeat viewings.

Ostensibly the film is a haunted house story. A group of Japanese schoolgirls (complete with Sailor Moon outfits) are super excited for summer break and decide to visit Auntie's creepy old mansion on the hill out in the middle of nowhere. Soon after they arrive girls start disappearing and blood starts flowing. Straight forward enough, right? Writer/director/producer/special effects director Nobuhiko Obayashi seems to have less interest in simply telling a haunted house story than in testing the limits of what cinematic elements you can squeeze into a haunted house story. There's animation, collage, color, black & white, hand drawn special effects, bizarre music cues and sound effects and scenes where the film speed is experimented with. But rather than all this becoming exhausting (like much of the experimentation in Mock Up On Mu), it's fascinating and wildly entertaining. While much of the time you're shaking your head in disbelief you're also excited about the unlimited possibilities of what could come next.

For all the imagination and fun the film provides, it does come at the cost of coherence. In this case, it's a small price to pay but you are left asking many questions. The story behind the haunted house involves Auntie, who may or may not be a ghost, and her white cat Blanche, who may or may not be the evil mastermind behind the killings. Seriously. There's a backstory to Auntie that gets told in an amazingly creative sepia toned flashback that takes place when one of the girls is showing an old photo of Auntie to her friends. The photo comes alive and plays like a silent movie, with all of the girls providing commentary on the film. It involves Auntie's husband going off to war and dying in combat but Auntie never giving up hope that he'd return. I believe this has something to do with why her eating a couple of her niece's friends, but I can't be too sure -- and don't ask me to explain the ending either.

But again, a handful of loose threads does not take away from the sights and sounds of seeing a girl get eaten by a piano.

Or does it deter from the insane but untimely demise of Kung Fu. Oh wait, did I forget to mention that all of the girls go by descriptive names -- the one that's good at Kung Fu is called Kung Fu, the girl with musical talent is called Melody, the girl likes to clean is called, um, Sweet, etc. Yeah, that's one of the mildly odd things going on here.

Obviously there's some level of kitsch involved since this is a film from 1977 and the special effects we know today were still a theory, but as your watching the Watermelon guy get turned into a cartoon skeleton, it's obvious that you're laughing along with the movie rather than at it. Even at its goofiest though, there's going to be a shot or a sequence around the corner that will impress even the most hardened film fan. It's amazing to see images and themes pop up in Hausu that are still being recycled over 30 years later. The long wet black hair creeping out of the water and onto the shoulder of Gorgeous (yes, that's her name) is a prime example of imagery that still pops up in nearly every J-horror film of recent memory.

This is one that I urge anyone looking to throw on a movie to impress some friends, and even that one who thinks they've seen every gonzo movie out there, to track down. Hausu is guaranteed to astound all.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

BUFF - Mock Up On Mu

Dir. Craig Baldwin

Viewed: From the Balcony

Sorry for neglecting you this year Boston Underground Film Festival. After the fun we had last year, I feel like a total schmo for getting caught off guard this past Thursday when the festivities kicked-off. But I'm trying my best to make up for it by catching up with what I can during this week's re-runs. First up was Mock Up On Mu -- a bizarro mash-up of old sci-fi and B-movie clips with newly shot scenes, put through a blender and resulting in something about L. Ron Hubbard, Lockheed Martin and a mad scientist type plan for colonizing and mining the moon for energy... I think.

We start out being introduced to our main players: L. Ron Hubberd, Lockheed Martin, Jack Parsons, Marjorie Cameron and Alistar Crowley-- all characters plucked from history and thrown into this complex and convoluted plot that has L. Ron Hubbard running a huge compound on the moon, sending an agent down to Earth to infiltrate Lockheed and Parsons, something about some crazy reflective surface capturing energy from the moon... I think. The weird thing, not that there's just one by any means, is that the film is 99% exposition. And at 110 minutes it wears you down to a beaten pulp by the end. With all the insane jump cuts that frequently reach subliminal level and the constant barrage of absurd details being delivered at a rapid rate by the actors (all of which is purposely out of synch with what's on the screen, even in the new footage) it's completely overwhelming to the point of fatigue.

But as far as experiments go, Mock Up On Mu isn't a complete failure. There are times when it all comes together, if only for a brief moment here and there. When the images come together to achieve a transcendental converging point and the perfect music is playing and it's like your slipping through one of L. Ron's wormholes. But in many of the other moments writer/director Craig Bladwin is simply throwing the kitchen sink at us. It is amazing and funny how so many of the old movies from the 50's through 60's can be interchangable (not that that's changed at all) and you repurpose scenes from an old Robert Mitchum movie, a spaghetti western and a cheapie sci-fi flick for the same means. It's funny for a little while anyway. As is one character speaking only in movie titles for long stretches and how the movie incorporates the real history from these character's lives and makes it part of their back story and how they came to be involved in L. Ron's moon conquering plot. One of the great ah-ha moments of the film comes from Baldwin using the commentary track on an old hippy movie to have Dennis Hopper point out the real Marjorie Cameron during her character's flashback -- it's meta-fantastic and it's these kinds of inspired moments that make the film interesting. If only the film could sustain these moments then I'd be more eager to recommend it.

There's Movies in the Air (The Independent Film Festival of Boston Announces 2009's Line-Up)

It's movie season in Boston. When the thaw begins and the long-johns are peeled off, our two most treasured film festivals warm the hearts of our fair city's film geeks. The Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF) is underway as I write this and look here for some coverage tonight and tomorrow. But this morning RFC received the announcement for the Independent Film Festival of Boston's (IFFBoston) 2009 line-up and it is indeed an impressive one.

The IFFBoston has been growing exponentially for years now and looking at this year's line-up has given me the biggest smile since I've been following the fest. Most notably we have Robert Siegel’s debut as writer and director, Big Fan starring Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan (who is everywhere these days). Siegel's writing debut, The Wrestler divided Padraic and myself a bit but I think we're both eager to take a look at Big Fan -- a downward spiral movie about an obsessed sports fan. I'm a huge Patton Oswalt nerd but was quite surprised with his role on last week's Dollhouse. The guy's growing some serious acting chops. So yeah, Big Fan is at the top of my list.

Also up there is the long awaited follow up to Brick, Rian Johnson's The Brother's Bloom. Another highly-stylized movie -- this one about grifter brothers attempting a long con and it stars Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, and RFC darling Rachel Weisz. It's the fest's opening night movie and it has seen a lot of attention and probably undergone too much scrutiny already on the festival circuit. Reactions have been all over the place, which only gets me more excited to check it out.

Other notables narrative features include new films from the always reliably nuts Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours) and RFC favorites Andrew Bujalski (Beeswax) and Bruce McDonald (Pontypool). Also, two films that come to IFFBoston with some attention are Nicolas Winding Refn's bloody Bronson and Bobcat Goldwaith's World's Greatest Dad starring an against-type Robin Williams in what looks like another great dark comedy from Goldwaith (who will be in attendance -- so hopefully I'll get my chance to ask him if my dream for Shake's the Clown 2 will ever come to fruition).

Taking a look at the documentaries we have a new feature from one of the heroes behind the Paradise Lost series, Joe Berlinger (Crude) and the attention grabbing For The Love Of Movies: The Story Of American Film Criticism from Gerald Perry. And, as is usually the case, the shorts are a bit of a mystery but one of them is from the painfully funny Don Hertzfeldt (I Am So Pround of You) so I'll do my best to track it down.

But don't take my word for it, here's the press release:


Festival expands to the ICA and adds new presenting sponsor; “THE BROTHERS BLOOM” directed by Rian Johnson to open seventh annual festival;

BOSTON (March 22, 2009)—The Independent Film Festival of Boston (IFFBoston) today announced the films that will be featured at the 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston. The seventh annual festival will be held April 22-April 28, 2009. In the continuing expansion of the festival, the Institute of Contemporary Art – Boston has been added as a screening venue. A new Presenting Sponsor, The Liberty Hotel, has joined the festival and the official hotel of the Independent Film Festival of Boston. The liberty Hotel joins returning presenting sponsors Ford and JetBlue Airways. B-Side, a leading technology partner for film festivals, has also joined as a Premier Sponsor for the Independent Film Festival of Boston in 2009. B-Side will manage all ticketing pages of the festival website and provide interactive features for audience members. The festival, complete with film screenings, filmmaker Q&A sessions, panel discussions, visiting filmmakers, parties and events will showcase the works of filmmakers who seek to create films that are life changing, thought provoking and expose aspects of life in new and revealing manners.

“THE BROTHERS BLOOM” directed by Rian Johnson and starring Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, and Rachel Weisz will open the festival on Wednesday, April 22nd at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. Rian Johnson and selected cast will be in attendance for the Opening Night screening.

Some highlights of the 2009 festival include Ondi Timoner’s (“Dig!”) Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, Guillermo Arriaga’s ( writer of “Babel”, “21 Grams”) directorial debut THE BURNING PLAIN starring Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER starring Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, LA MISSION starring Benjamin Bratt, IN THE LOOP starring James Gandolfini, Hirokazu Koreeda’s STILL WALKING, Robert Siegel’s (writer of “The Wrestler”) BIG FAN starring Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan, Olivier Assayas’ SUMMER HOURS starring Juliette Binoche, and WORLD’S GREATEST DAD directed by Bobcat Goldthwait.

Numerous films with strong Boston ties will make their New England premieres at the festival this April including Jonathan Hock’s THE LOST SON OF HAVANA, Bestor Cram’s JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON, Aron Gaudet’s THE WAY WE GET BY, Laura Longsworth’s LUCKEY, Gerald Peary’s FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES: THE STORY OF AMERICAN FILM CRITICISM, Amy Grill’s SPEAKING IN CODE, Andrew Bujalski’s BEESWAX, Alex Karpovsky’s TRUST US, THIS IS ALL MADE UP, Ian McFarland’s CHIP ON MY SHOULDER, George Kachadorian’s SHOOTING BEAUTY, Al Ward’s BLOOD, SWEAT & CHEERS, and Tze Chun’s CHILDREN OF INVENTION.

Special guests attending the festival include Chris Cooper, Bobcat Goldthwait, Bobby and Peter Farrelly, Kevin Corrigan, Luis Tiant, and many more to be announced in the coming weeks.


Narrative Features
500 DAYS OF SUMMER, directed by Marc Webb
THE ANSWER MAN, directed by John Hindman
BEESWAX, directed by Andrew Bujalski
BIG FAN, directed by Robert Seigel
BIRDWATCHERS, directed by Marco Bechis
BREAKING UPWARDS, directed by Daryl Wein
BRONSON, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
THE BROTHERS BLOOM, directed by Rian Johnson
THE BURNING PLAIN, directed by Guillermo Arriaga
CHILDREN OF INVENTION, directed by Tze Chun
THE ESCAPIST, directed by Rupert Wyatt
FROM INSIDE, directed by John Bergin
GRACE, directed by Paul Solet
HELEN, directed by Joe Lawlor & Christine Malloy
THE HIGHER FORCE, directed by Olaf De Fleur
IN THE LOOP, directed by Armando Iannucci
MAKE-OUT WITH VIOLENCE, directed by The Deagol Brothers
THE MISSING PERSON, directed by Noah Buschel
LA MISSION, directed by Peter Bratt
PONTYPOOL, directed by Bruce McDonald
STILL WALKING, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
STINGRAY SAM, directed by Cory McAbee
SUMMER HOURS, directed by Olivier Assayas
THAT EVENING SUN, directed by Scott Teems
THE VICIOUS KIND, directed by Lee Toland Kreiger
THE WORLD’S GREATEST DAD, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
Documentary Features
ART & COPY, directed by Doug Pray
AUTOMORPHISIS, directed by Harrod Blank
BEST WORST MOVIE, directed by Michael Stephenson
BLOOD, SWEAT & CHEERS, directed by Al Ward
CHIP ON MY SHOULDER, directed by Ian McFarland
CRUDE, directed by Joe Berlinger
FOOD, INC., directed by Robert Kenner
FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES, directed by Gerald Peary
HERB AND DOROTHY, directed by Megumi Sasaki
I NEED THAT RECORD!, directed by Brendan Toller
INVISIBLE GIRLFRIEND, directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin
JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON, directed by Bestor Cram
KIMJONGILIA, directed by NC Heikin
THE LOST SON OF HAVANA, directed by Jonathan Hock
LUCKEY, directed by Laura Longsworth
MINE, directed by Geralyn Pezanoski
MONSTERS FROM THE ID, directed by David Gargani
NOLLYWOOD BABYLON, directed by Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal
OF ALL THE THINGS, directed by Jody Lambert
PROM NIGHT IN MISSISSIPPI, directed by Paul Saltzman
SHOOTING BEAUTY, directed by George Kachadorian
SPEAKING IN CODE, directed by Amy Grill
THE SWEET LADY WITH THE NASTY VOICE, directed by Joanne Fish and Vincent Kralyevich
TRIMPIN: THE SOUND OF INVENTION, directed by Peter Esmonde
TRINIDAD, directed by PJ Raval
TRUST US, THIS IS ALL MADE UP, directed by Alex Karpovksy
UNMISTAKEN CHILD, directed by Nati Baratz
UPSTREAM BATTLE, directed by Ben Kampas
THE WAY WE GET BY, directed by Aron Gaudet
WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, directed by Ondi Timoner
WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE, directed by Sarah and Emily Kunstler
WINNEBAGO MAN, directed by Ben Steinbauer
Short Films
THE ARCHIVE, directed by Sean Dunne
BEAN, directed by Giovanna Federico
THE BLINDNESS IN THE WOODS, directed by Martin Jalfen and Javier Lourenco
BOOB, directed by William Murnion and Jon Milott
FUNNY GUY, directed by Frank Rinaldi
GAINING GROUND, directed by Marc Brummund
HA’ AGAM (THE LAKE), directed by Boaz Lavie
I AM SO PROUD OF YOU, directed by Don Hertzfeldt
I KNEW IT WAS YOU, directed by Richard Shepard
THE INCIDENT AT TOWER 37, directed by Chris Perry
INSTEAD OF ABRACADABRA, directed by Patrik Eklund
JULIE, JULIE, directed by Liam Creighton
KANISZA HILL, directed by Evelyn Lee
KNIFE POINT, directed by Carlo Mirabella=Davis
I LIVE IN THE WOODS, directed by Max Winston
LOLLIPOP MAN, directed by Michael Axelgaard
MELANCHOLY BABY, directed by Sean Hood
NEXT FLOOR, directed by Denis Villeneuve
NO WIND, NO WAVES, directed by Julian Higgins
O.W. HOUTS AND SONS, INC., directed by Aaron Matthews and Richard Sherman
PRINCESS MARGARET BLVD., directed by Kazik Radwanski
SHIKZIEN, directed by Jeremey Clapin
SHOCKWAVES, directed by Serge Ou
SHORT TERM 12, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
THE SLEUTH INCIDENT, directed by Jason Kupfer
SMALL COLLECTION, directed by Jeremiah Crowell
THE SNAKE MOUNTAIN COLADA, directed by Calvin Reeder
TENDER AS HELLFIRE, directed by Jason Stone
THEO, directed by Georgi Banks-Davies
UNDONE, directed by Hayley Morris
WHAT IS SHE TO YOU?, directed by Aiden Burgess

The Independent Film Festival of Boston will reach a diverse audience by incorporating a number of venues in the greater Boston community including:
· Somerville Theatre in Davis Square
· Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square
· Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline
· Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston

All festival venues are easily accessible by MBTA public transportation and are all located near area parking.

Passes will be available online at on March 22, 2009.
Individual tickets will be available online at on April 1st, 2009.

If you plan to attend the festival and would like press credentials, please register for them at by April 13th.

About the Independent Film Festival of BostonThe Independent Film Society of Boston, a 501(c)3 non-profit, produces the annual Independent Film Festival of Boston. Our mission is to showcase emerging filmmakers, musicians and visual artists and provide attendees direct access in interactive environments to these artists. Additional information about the Independent Film Festival of Boston is available at or email

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Weekly Alternative - The Mothman Prophecies

This weekend Nicolas Cage is once again doing what he doesn't do best -- save the world. I'm sure I'm not the only one who wishes Cage would put his superhero, action star dreams to sleep, permanently. Remember Adaptation? Man, that was a good one -- played to his strengths. So I'm tempted to recommend some forgotten Cage movie like Vampire's Kiss or Bringing Out the Dead. But I'll stick to the themes of Cage's newest would-be blockbuster, Knowing, and recommend a movie dealing with paranormal warnings that is surely far more creepy than Knowing and based on a true story to boot.

The Mothman is a rich subject, probably worthy of an even better movie than The Mothman Prophecies, Mark Pellington's 2002 movie featuring Richard Gere and Laura Linney. An adaptation of the book written on the strange events that occured around a couple around a town in West Virginia over the days leading up to the tragic collapse of a suspension bridge in 1967. The film has it's problems but they're mostly kept to the front end of the picture as it uses some less than inspired techinques to get the story moving. Richard Gere's wife dies after a car crash and he finds that she's been making some drawings of a mothman type character. A couple years later he's trying to drive to Richmond but instead he find himself mysteriously deposited in Point Pleasant, West Virginia -- the real town that experienced the mothman sitings and the bridge colapse. The film then takes palce in the days leading up to that bridge collapse and Gere and the town sherrif, played by Laura Linney, work as our Skully and Mulder as we start meeting with the other people who've had run-ins with the Mothman and tryt to crack the mystery.

While the film is clumsy getting itself going in the early on, once we're in Point Pleasant and we're actually dealing with the real events that occured prior to the bridge collapse, the movie becomes a subtle (for this kind of film) and eerie look at the possibility of actual harbingers of doom manifesting themselves. Gere and Linney certainly add some credibility to this story and one of the reasons why this movie has stuck with me is how well and respectfully it treats this material. This isn't turned into an excuse to wow audiences with some whiz-bang special effects. It keeps its focus on the story and the characters and to its benefit keeps everything in the realm of possibility -- at least in a Fortean sense.

For fans of all things Fortean, this film can be looked at with some frustration as a bit of a wasted opertunity. There have been very few films made that deal with high profile paranormal events in any kind of satisfying way for those of us who enjoy pondering the posibilities of such things. Some of the more fascinating aspects of the Mothman story get bogged down in the Richard Gere character's back story and the end result can lead to more head scratching than to any sense of discovery. But it does get the fundamentals right. You come away with the great sense of dread that permeates every frame and if you do leave scratching your head, wondering what the Mothman is all about, like I did, and start researching the subject, is a testament to its effectiveness. Asside from some of the storytelling mess, Mark Pellington does a great job with the material. The elemental creepiness of the Mothman and the conspiracy at large in this film is handled with a realness that could easily have been turned into something like, oh I don't know, some sort of Nicolas Cage vehicle. So if you're in the mood for some real Knowing, I would recommend taking a look at how it might have went down 40 years ago in West Virginia and watch The Mothman Prophecies. But if you just want to see 'spolsions and more futile attempts at keeping a hairline under control, well then you could probably do worse than Knowing. Hell, it looks a whole lot better than that Bangok Dangerous mess.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Great St. Patrick's Day Evacuation Day Movie Marathon

Every good holiday deserves a good movie marathon here at RFC HQ. The last one, the President's Day Marathon/Twitter experiment, wasn't really a smashing success in any way, shape or form besides providing a bit of a headache despite (or due to?) the efforts of Herzog and Fassbinder. So we'll try to do things a little difefrently today.


So we're starting with an RFC favorite, rather than an unknown quantity, and it's a film I haven't seen in many years: David Cronenberg's Videodrome. I love how the first sound of the movie is the sound of doom, it gets you excited. I think it might be time for electric organs, a la Cronenberg and Carpenter, to make a comeback. And I love how every name in the film is pure gold: Max Renn, Barry Convex, Prof. Brian O'Blivion, Spectacular Optical, Cathode Ray Mission, TeleRANGER (if they still made TVs like the TeleRANGER I probably never would have upgraded to HDTV here at HQ). But what I find interesting is how, despite numerous attempts, no one has been able to replicate Videodrome's effectiveness in the digital age. The idea that what we as a society create might lead to a quick, unplanned and horrific step in the evolution of man, or a mutation of some kind, is an attractive story. In the realm of science fiction it's frighteningly plausable. One reason why is made perfectly clear when your watching Videodrome -- shitty, badly lit, grainy analog video and organic, oozing, practical special effects are always scarier than the 0's and 1's of the digital age. But there might be a contender, which I'll get to next.

Kairo (Pulse)

Not quite what I was expecting after having seen the far less ambiguous remake of this film a few months ago. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, if there's anything an American remake of a foreign film will do its strip away ambiguity, but aside from a few details there's very little connecting this 2001 Japanese film with its 2006 retarded American cousin.

In Kairo people all over Tokyo are disappearing and it all seems to connect back to them internet. I can't say for sure whether it's one website or the whole internet that has been taken over, but people are seeing what appears to be static shots of ghosts and/or despondent people who will eventually kill themselves. The movie is very fuzzy with the details, which the American version is more than happy to try and clarify in absurd ways, but this fuzziness adds to the creepiness and mystery. We're trying to figure out this mystery along with a handful of people and no one will end up cracking it. The similarity to Videodrome is less on the nose than I thought it might be, but it is there nonetheless in the way that simply watching something can be like contracting a contagious disease. In Kairo no one is grwoing a brain tumor that will cause hallucinations and eventually "new flesh", but instead they become suicidal with depression and a realization that there is no escaping lonliness.

I'm particularly fond of the film's idea that the internet would be the host to this lonliness disease. Over time I've become a firm believer that the internet is a less than ideal means to clearly communicate or meaningfully connect with anyone despite the ever growing amount of emotocons at our disposal. So the idea that someone can look into the soul of the internet and basically see a black hole of disparaging lonliness is pretty great.

At it's heart though, Kairo is a ghost story -- only instead of a house being haunted it's the entire world. The only thing coming close to an explaination of what's going on comes half-way through the movie when a theory about the ghost world being filled to capacity and overflowing into our world is given. And when these spirits cross over they're ghosts in the machines just as they are in the library or apartment. It's another parallel to Videodrome that human's will experience another life after death within the new thechnology that we've created.

Kairo's effectiveness is due in large part to the crappy, grainy video it's shot on. That's not to say that the cinematography is bad, quite the opposite actually -- Kyoshi Kurosawa's framing and minimalism is expert stuff. It's effective in the same way David Lynch's use of low-tech video cameras in Inland Empire made that movie all the more eerie. While the digitally rendered ghosts in the film aren't quite as disturbing as the mutations in Videodrome, they are well done and the films use of shadows and blackness is simply great but it's the fixed camera that really gets under the skin. There's nothing quite as effective in a scary movie as wanting to blink or turn away but knowing the camera is going to stay right where it is until the inevitable ghost appears.

But my favorite element of Kairo is its Lovecraftian element. H. P. Lovecraft's stories often focused on the psychological snap that occurs when you see the incomprehensible. Kairo does a great job at conveying this idea and I can't even come up with another movie that attempts it. The ultimate fragility of the human mind when it comes across the paranormal is usually not even taken into consideration in a horror movie, so it's nice to see it front and center here.

Ok, let's move on, shall we? My first thought this morning was to string together a line-up of related films and from here I would maybe move on to another ghost story or Japanese film, but now I think I'll make this marathon two double headers instead. It looks like the Sam Fuller movies I have on the Roku are going to expire at the end of the month so it would be a shame if I didn't get to at least a couple of them...

The Steel Helmet

While the epic The Big Red One will always be writer/director Sam Fuller's perfect war movie, The Steel Helmet may be his ballsiest movie. To its credit you don't even have to know its history or have been around when it came out to realize how many chances the film takes. The film follows a hard-ass Sargent as he helps some wayward soldiers hold down an abandoned temple during the Korean war. The most obviously controversial scene happens when a captured North Korean tries to provoke a black soldier and a Japanese-American soldier. He asks the black soldier why he would fight along-side people that don't even allow him to eat in the same restaurants or sit with them on a bus. Then he asks the Japanese-American why he's fighting for a country that was calling him a dirt Jap and had his family locked up in camps during the last war. Both questions are given intelligent, patriotic answers but there's no doubt that a Warner Bros movie would never have dreamed of asking such a question in the first place. This is what makes Sam Fuller so great. Then you come to find out that The Steel Helmet was made in 10 days for $100,000 and only six months into the Korean war and ended up getting him the attention of the FBI. Pretty amazing.

The small budget takes some minor tolls on the movie. Some of the acting isn't the best and there's a couple out of focus shots that I'm sure would've been fixed if time and money weren't so much of an issue. But the movie still feels like a powder keg over 50 years later. At his best Fuller could write like David Mamet and even give his scenes the same kind of charged electricity. So without further ado let's move on to another one of his 50's classics that's been lovingly tended to by the folks behind the Criterion Collection...

Pickup on South Street

Wow. Fuller's Pickup on South Street is just about as perfect as these movies get. A tidy little con-artist thriller. Richard Widmark stars as a subway pickpocket who accidentally steals a few frames of film from a lady who was on her way to do a drop-off. The film is, of course, the classic Macguffin -- something to do with a patent and the commies. So now the cops and the commies are doing what they can to get the film back from Widmark's sly con-man.

If nothing else, Pickup features Thema Ritter giving one of the all time great supporting performaces in Moe Williams, an informant who's dream is to save enough money to afford a nice spot in a respectable graveyard. Ritter is a revelation -- funny with whipcrack timing and (spoiler!) gives one of the most suprisingly moving death scenes I've seen in a long while. Picture this line being perfectly delivered: "Mister, I'm so tired, you'd be doing me a favor by blowing my head off." Camera pans to the record playing on her bed stand -- bang.

My only problem with the film is how quickly the female lead, Candy, falls for Richard Widmark. Widmark is naturally his charming, suave self but Candy falls for the guy minutes after he wakes her up by pouring beer on her face? I take it that she isn't exactly a prude and that she may have fallen for him when he first picked her purse on the subway, but their romance always seemed a little forced in the movie despite their on-screen chemistry.

Well, that's all folks. Time to sign off here and call it a day. This was certainly one of the best line-up of films I've watched over the course of a single day. I hope the Patriot's Day Marathon can keep the streak alive. Until then...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lars and the Real Girl

Dir. Craig Gillespie

Viewed: From the Couch

One of these days the film universes' planets will align and Ryan Gosling will appear in an all-around great movie -- one that is equal to Goslings' skills as an actor. Even in the worst of his films (take your pick) he shines as bright as the best of him. Just like any number of good actors out there that make questionable choices in the roles they pick. Except by this time in their careers they've usually landed in one or two movies that don't just exist for their benefit -- that actually step up to meet them. But so far, with a couple really close calls, Gosling has yet to be in a film that doesn't have serious problems, the kind that prevent me from ever recommending one of his films. In Lars in the Real Girl, it's pretty much 50% of the film. And yet, it's one of his better movies.

Ryan Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom, a recluse at 28 who literally has to be tackled and dragged to dinner with his oblivious brother and sympathetic step-sister. Lars' journey from out of his anti-social cocoon is the center of the movie and the hook is that it happens through his delusional relationship with a mail order, anatomically correct, plastic girlfriend named Bianca. That this is the element of the movie that works, that Lars' climactic kiss with Bianca is extremely moving, is all due to Ryan Gosling. Honsetly, I'm pretty close to recommending the movie just so you can watch how he gets his character to that scene and makes every moment he has with Bianca defiantly powerful. He manages to bring sympathy and realness to Lars despite the rest of the movie trying to drag us into Northern Exposure territory. Not that there's anything wrong with that series, it's simply that Gosling's intensity is like oil and water with the rest of the movie's cute quirkiness.

For one reason or another I was reminded of Be Kind Rewind during Lars. Both films feature the reassuring premise of a community coming together to save a piece of itself. In Michel Gondry's film we're existing in a fantastical world where you can happily suspend your disbelief and enjoy the rose-colored view of the world. In Lars, the color is next to completely drained from the film and we're watching a disturbed man play out a fantasy that may or may not end up in a complete mental breakdown. All the while, along the sidelines, we're being shown how much everyone else in town is more than willing to play along with Lars' fantasy because they care for him so much. Why? I guess because he faithfully goes to church? That must be it because for every other minute he's kind of an ass.

Every moment the movie simply focuses on Lars and his metaphorical relationship with Bianca, it works. The rest of the movie consists of scene after scene of cutesy townfolk taking Bianca to the salon, to the mall, etc. That the townspeople are so recpetive to Lars and willing to play along is something that helps Lars tear down his wall -- but it isn't something that has to go so far into comic relief and the absurd. The story would have been even more powerful without the lingering idea that Bianca got a position on the town's school board. The scene where Lars and Bianca are accepted at a co-worker's party would have been enough to drive this point home.

It might seem like I'm nitpicking here, but this is the type of movie that has to pull off a tightrope walk to work. If you want to make a touching, humorous movie about a mentally unstable man working out his problems with the help of a delusional relationship with a plastic sex doll, it's going to be a delicate balancing act. While Ryan Gosling nails the uneasy intensity of Lars' journey and transformation from beginning to end, the rest of the cast of characters seem intent on making the journey as goofy as possible. While this disconnect may be in the script, I think you can chalk it up to first time director Craig Gillespie. Making sure everyone is in sync with each other is one of the first responsibilities of a director along with creating an even tone and making sure the lighting, the visual design and everything else matches that tone. In all these regards I think the movie fails. But hey, getting a great Gosling performance seems to come with a price and with Lars and the Real Girl you have better option to see him work than sitting through The United States of Leland.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Weekly Alternative - Wassup Rockers

I know we've all been waiting for me to start a new recurring column destined to never recur. (The comic one isn't all my fault -- still waiting to get the scanner back up and running.) So stop your clamoring and drink in The Weekly Alternative. Wherein I take a look at the new releases, size up the less than appealing, manufactured time and money waster that's being crammed down your gullet and offer an alternative -- something similar, in the same genre, that you may have missed the first time around and actually worth your time and money.

This week some company has spent far too much money trying to sell me on Miss March. A pathetic looking entry into the Animal House, American Pie milieu that features at least one guy from that show on IFC I can't stand. (My brother, who usually has good taste, likes the show The Whitest Kids U'Know, so maybe it isn't as bad as the two episodes I forced myself to sit through lead me to believe.) The horrible commercials/trailers for this Miss March movie make me cringe and fill me with despair the way only a badly conceived comedy centered on horny idiots can. So what's the alternative?

If there's one autuer of movies featuring guys thinking with their dicks -- or rather, acting naturally, it's Larry Clark. He's the maestro behind Kids, Bully, Ken Park and this week's alternative Wassup Rockers. (He's also the subject of a very cool documentary Great American Rebel which is available on You Tube in its entirety. Quality isn't the best but we're talking about a movie that isn't on DVD being taken from VHS to You Tube so...) When it comes to capturing our youth at their worst, there isn't a better man to have on the job than Larry Clark. With Wassup Rockers he's teamed himself with a group of inner-city LA latino outcasts. They skateboard, play in a punk rock garage (or living room as the case may be) band and wear tight jeans which the local black girls love to tease them about. Like the heroes of any teenage sex comedy, our guys are just looking to hang out, drink some beers and maybe get lucky. They don't care much for school and being the outcasts they are they're constantly being harrassed by the more popular kids which makes their group tighter and more important to their day-to-day survival in South Central LA.

There are a number of things that make Wassup Rockers great fun to watch. One is that it never gets into the negativity of where they are and how fucked up their situation is. While there is that look into the dark side of our character's lives, as there is in any Larry Clark film, the tone is one of celebration and love of life even in the face of the worst that's out there. The kids in this close knit group have no delusions. They're happy if they make it through a school year alive and if one of them doesn't they know that's simply the way things are and their departed friend would want them to continue to find those sweet skate spots and pay their respects by writing a kick-ass rocker rather than go into mourning.

In his previous movies, Lary Clark has had some great scripts from some great screenwriters to work with but this time he takes sole credit for the screenplay and it comes with some benefits and some problems. While the movie may lack some focus, Clark gives his cast the ability to simply be themselves. The film has the feel that Clark simply set the framework and sat back and followed his non-actors as they went about their business. A couple of the kids are a bit stiff and less natural than the others but for the most part they're a wonder to behold and a joy to hang out with.

While Miss March promises hilarious shenanigans following a couple buddies on a road trip to the Playboy Mansion -- why not instead follow a group of buddies from the ghetto to the swimming pools of Beverly Hills as they charm their way into parties and your girlfriend's pants, find a sweet skate spot and rampant racism and live life to the fullest. Wassup Rockers is funny, revealing and full of truth and love for its stars. And for an hour and a half, Larry Clark does make stars out of his punk loving latino friends from South Central and you'll find it's really easy to fall in love with these guys just like Clark did and like the rich white women in the film do.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Dir. Zack Snyder

Viewed: From the Balcony

I wasn't planning on adding to the internet din of bloggers and message board enthusiasts who have been doing quite fine on their own going in circles ad nauseam about the merits or lack thereof regarding Zack Snyder's Watchmen adaptation. So forgive the lack of a plot description (which can fill a blog all its own) and the normal gettin' to know ya formalities and let's get straight to the reach around. For starters I believe there hasn't been enough focus and perspective on what made Watchmen great in the first place and how this should keep everyone's expectations for the movie in check. Yes, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons told us a great, darkly ambiguous story and we should expect that story to come across in the film more or less thematically intact. But what made that story the legend it is today is that it was told over a series of comic books in a way that had never before been achieved in that medium. There's been a slew of comic books and even a couple of good Batman movies that get into similar territory but none can touch level of craftsmanship and depth of detail that went into those books. It isn't the story so much as how it was told that made Watchmen the book the masterpiece it is. So, do you really expect the Watchmen movie to reinvent film making? Can you honestly expect to be as amazed all over again in a completely different medium? It's next to impossible and especially so when you're dealing with a film that's hoping to recoup millions of dollars from the movie going public. What you can hope is that the movie opens people's eyes to what a movie about a group of costumed crime fighters can accomplish. And in that regard, and in brazen, joyful disregard of coherence and accessibilty, I think it succeeds, mostly.

I've gone on before about why a lot of people are foolish when it comes to criticizing an adaptation for leaving out this precious thing or that, but it feels like it can't be said enough. A question I ask people at my day job is, What do you expect to happen? Going into any movie you can immediately put some things into place. (Bear with me for a moment.) There's all kinds of possibilities here but if you're seeing a movie at your local multi-screen theater chances are you're watching a movie that has some level of general accessibility. Most chain theaters still won't show a movie that hasn't been screened for the MPAA or given an NC-17 rating. And most likely the movie you're watching required investors that were given some hope that this film would attract a certain kind of audience that would allow them to at least make their money back. Now an adaptation is generally seen as a good idea, a good investment because usually you're making an adaptation of something that has proven to have admirers, fans, an audience that might be interested in seeing a film version of whatever it is. Part of the reason Watchmen the book has so many fans is because it is unlike anything else (see above paragraph). This raises problems right off the bat. It's dark, bleak and pretty much all around nasty in its disposition. It's a seriously dense story with numerous indispensable characters and complex relationships. The glowing blue guy and flying owl shaped vehicle and the destruction of a major city, amoung many other things, are going to add up to a hefty price tag. So, again, what do you expect to happen? Do you expect the movie to represent the experimental storytelling that you loved about the comic? Do you expect the payoff to be as rewarding? No. You know why? It's a Zack Snyder movie and not the meticulous twelve issues of comic books that still stands today as unsurpassed in its achievements. But you know what -- that dark, bleak, dense story with numerous important characters and complex relationships -- it's all there in this movie and that's an accomplishment in and of itself. I have to give the filmmakers credit for giving us a movie that still tries to comment on the major themes of the book, even if they don't fully connect on all of them due to the constraints inherent in the project and yes, the numerous missteps they made along the way.

It certainly has its problems, some of which honestly would be there in any unless you got the greenlight on a twelve hour, perfectly cast and directed HBO miniseries. And some of the questionable choices are almost excusable because their sheer audacity makes them entertaining. For the most part the song choice in Watchmen is set exclusively to the most iconic songs of the past 30-40 years. Maybe not the wizest of choices in general but early on there is a simply amazing montage/credits sequence that establishes the world our "heroes" inhabit set to the tune of Bob Dylan's "Times They Are A'Changing". That this works at all is amazing but it actually soars and sets a high water mark that the film never quite reaches again. Other songs like "Sounds of Silence" and "99 Luftballoons" are used far less successfully but keep with the film's wrongheadedness in terms of picking songs that are so on the nose it's embarrassing. A song choice should help coax the mood, not slap you across the face. Did the movie really just crib "The Ride of the Valkyries" for its Vietnam war sequence? Seriously? But we really go off the deep end with the marriage of Dan and Laurie making sweet sweet love (complete with Archie ejaculation) while we listen to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". Yeah. This scene gets to the point of the most confounding thing about the movie -- in some cases it's faithful to a fault (we really didn't need to see Archie shooting its flaming load across the night's sky even though it is in the book) and in others it makes seemingly arbitrary, pointless changes (why not use the Billie Holiday song the book uses to spark the love scene rather than Cohen's awkwardness?). These are annoying and distracting problems, some of which may only exist for the comic fans but I'm sure will leave many non-fanboys scratching their head, or in the case of this scene, laughing.

The more obvious problems come from the casting of Malin Ackerman as Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II and Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias. Going back to the inherent problems you'll face in adapting Watchmen, you can't really excise any of the major characters and you can't drop the ball with any of them either. And the ball is dropped whenever we're dealing with Silk Spectre II and Ozymandias who are both crucial characters and come off as one-note and paper-thin. The problem with Goode as Veidt leads to a problem the movie has with the main plot and story of Watchmen as well. At its core we're dealing with a mystery -- complete with pulpy narration and lots of your basic hard-nosed detective work -- and if anyone watching this movie gets caught up in the mystery behind what's going on up on the screen, I'd be honestly amazed. I would imagine most newbies to be spending most of their time just trying to keep up and get a grasp on what the hell this whole thing is supposed to be about. Again, this is an inherent problem with this adaptation, even at 3 hours long, so I can't lay all the blame on the filmmakers here. But they don't cut themselves any favors by presenting a version of the movie (I understand that we can expect an extra hour in the Director's Cut) that's muddled in its storytelling abilities at best. The book is an immersive thing that gradually unfolds a complex mythology. The movie, at close to three hours, is whisking you to an ending that will either resonate or fall flat and I can accept both answers from any given viewer but I can't call it a complete failure or get lost in nitpicking the variations between the book and movie because it does have its pleasures.

What Zack Snyder lacks in storytelling agility, he makes up for with a sometimes awe inspiring eye. While nothing quite hits you like the opening titles montage, there's sequences in the film that are downright beautiful. Particularly anything involving Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, our glowing blue god-like entity. In a hurricane that at times seems pointless he's the subtle, nuanced calm at the center of the storm. This movie could have been a masterpiece if we were just to focus our story on the arc of Dr. Manhattan. I was transfixed every minute we spent with him and my deep respect for Billy Crudup's skills only grew with his performance. I would say the same for Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach but he was pretty much an unknown quantity for me going in. That these two characters, and to a lesser extent even Nite Owl II and The Comedian, are so perfectly realized, I can't say the movie is unwatchable or without merit. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are the heart and soul of the story, respectively, and they nailed them both perfectly in the movie. There's an undeniable thrill in seeing these characters up there being true to themselves and the story. You can flip to almost any page in the book and find a panel that ended up on the screen. As in the Archie fire spooge, that's not necessarily a good thing, but imagine the geek furor that would be raining down on this movie if it went the other way into some sort of re-imagining or actually did attempt some sort of experimental deconstruction of the story. For all its faults I can applaud it for capturing what it does capture with obvious admiration and a great eye for detail.

For the most part, when Warner Brothers took Paul Greengrass off the project and replaced him with Zach Snyder, the die was cast. The world of Watchmen wasn't going to strive for any realism, instead the grimy surroundings were going to have a glossy sheen. Warners obviously choose him for these reasons and his trademark slo-mo moments to make the violence more comic booky and theoretically attractive to all those fans of things that go boom and crunch. But to his credit, Snyder kept the story in 1985 and kept it more or less as it was told twenty years ago and not the modern day 9/11 influenced tale that Greengrass was going to shoot. I wouldn't say this is the best Watchmen movie we could have gotten -- simply changing the music cues and re-casting some characters could have made it a whole lot better, but I admire the few compromises that Snyder allowed for. Under his watch, Warner Bros released a complicated, hard R rated movie that is probably destined to loose money because they didn't fuck with it and make it PG-13 and come in at under two hours so that it could play more times a day and appeal to a wider audience. I don't want to come across as "It should never have been made as a movie in the first place, but since they were going to make it eventually, it could have been a lot worse, so thumbs up!" but I don't think it's impossible to balance taking the film on its own merits and in terms of the source material.

I have a soft spot for this kind of movie too. And no, I'm not talking about superhero or comic book based movies, but movies that shoot for the moon but rattle and break apart before they get there. Like last year's Southland Tales, Watchmen's ambition outshines clumsy storytelling, uneven performances and incoherent plot. In both these cases the movies are so gloriously bizarre that I can't wait to see the extra hour the directors had to cut just to get the thing inside a movie theater. The audiences for these kinds of head trips are so small that I find happiness in the fact that they get released at all. Don't kid yourself, Watchmen is one weirdo movie -- there's next to nothing about it besides a few brief scenes of stylized violence that's designed to be easily consumed by the average movie goer. Despite their best efforts, this is not a story the majority of people will want to pay money to sit through 3 hours to see. But a few months from now I'll watch the film again with the extra hour because I think it will improve the film, at least form a storytelling perspective. And so I can't really recommend the film, all I can say is that overall I had a good time watching the Watchmen.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Dead Man's Shoes

Dir. Shane Meadows

Viewed: From the Couch

UK director Shane Meadows is building a powerful line-up of unflinching views into the worst (and occasionally best) of contemporary, white, lower-to-middle class life in England. Right in the middle of this lies Dead Man's Shoes, a gut wrenching revenge film that leaves you devastated but nevertheless takes you on a heartfelt and often darkly funny ride. The movie is filled with conflicting emotions, the kind that are at the heart of most revenge movies. These stories always center around a person who just can't buy into Jesus Christ or Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy of forgiveness and turning the other cheek. The first thing we're told in Dead Man's Shoes is that Richard cannot allow these people to pray for forgiveness and be allowed into heaven after what they've done. Grainy footage teases out bits of the crimes that have been committed against Richard's mentally handicapped brother by a circle of friends who comprise the town's dope smoking/dealing losers. These flashbacks are strategically placed throughout the movie and are constantly changing our perspective on Richard's crusade. For 90 minutes you are reexamining your own morals and asking yourself at what point can you justify what Richard, our supposed hero, is doing.

A large part of what makes these questions imperative is that we're given such a charismatic bunch of fuck-ups to follow. Richard, our avenging angel, is kind of creepy -- an army vet who is more than a little unstable and as tightly wound as they come. But thankfully Paddy Considine plays him with a soulfulness and gives Richard a gentle madness that saves the character from being another Travis Bickle knock-off (the green jacket that Richard wears throughout may as well be a hand-me-down from Mr. Bickle). Mr. Considine has some god-given gifts to add to Richard, too. Rather than the hard edges of a Clint Eastwood, Considine's features are practically boyish. It just adds to the skewed perspective the movie plays in which continues with our bad guys -- most of whom come off as more lovable loser than murderous bastard. They do deal drugs to the locals but the only violence they seem capable of would be in a bar fight after too many beers and bong hits. It's a perfect way to flip the audience's expectations on its head. In all revenge films you're waiting for the hero to take out the scumbags that done him wrong, but here Meadows makes these guys almost likable -- putting everyone and the movie in this moral grey zone. So when Richard starts killing them one by one you're left slack-jawed rather than cheering, waiting for the next flashback to find out a little bit more what exactly happened to his brother that day. And sure enough each one does get a little bit worse.

I do have a small problem with these flashbacks. While there are eight people credited with Super 8 footage on the film, I believe the honest to goodness Super 8 footage is found solely during a great opening credits sequence set to a killer Smog tune (part of a killer overall soundtrack featuring choice Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, M. Ward and Calexico cuts). The flashbacks strewn throughout the film appear to be digitally manipulated to look black and white, grainy and worn and the effect is less than inspired. There's always some sort of technique used to separate the flashback footage in a movie -- sometimes it's simply black and white, sometimes it's over saturated color or different film stock or whathaveyou, most times, even here, it's distracting and unnecessary. The rest of the film your typical sunless England shots that provide that "gritty" and "real" look that seems rather effortless from this part of the world nowadays. But Meadows does provide this feel in an honest way through his meticulous eye for detail in the shitty apartments and bars, tiny suburban houses and middle of nowhere farm houses in the same way directors like Alexander Payne and Andrew Bujalski have used their surroundings and perfectly placed empty bottles to give their films that authentic and well worn feeling.

Primarily though Dead Man's Shoes is a showcase for Paddy Considine and his trail of dead. There is a well edited sequence half-way through when three of the marked men are holed up in a house, already fittingly paranoid before they're unwittingly drugged by Considine and experience a hilarious downward spiral in their tiny living room before they meet their pitiful demise. It's a scene that encompasses the entire feel of the movie in ten or so minutes. We're laughing as they huddle in the bathroom together (one taking a shit, one taking a bath), no one wanting to even sit in an adjacent room by themselves for fear Considine will pop out of the shadows and kill them. We laugh as they begin to stumble into a drug stupor but we laugh through empathy and in the back of our minds, as awful as they were that one day to Richard's brother we know these guys -- we know how easy it can be to slip into mob mentality with only a half dozen close friends and a head full of illicit substances -- we saw the look in their eyes as each one found out that it was Andrew's brother that out for revenge -- they all knew that they did something wrong. And when Richard does show up, cutting through the fog of their drug addled heads, he is the darkness, he is the grim reaper and not Charles Bronson, and no one is laughing, cheering or smiling when he does what he has to do.

Despite the title, the posters and some of the raves from more bloodthirsty sources, Dead Man's Shoes isn't a gory movie or even all that violent. A lot of the death's take place off screen but the movie has an uncomfortable but kinda thrilling intensity due in large part to Considine and the other character's paranoia. There's no lingering on tortured faces, but like Funny Games this one could also fall into the anti-horror genre in that there's no fun kills or anti-hero to root for. Except unlike Funny Games the movie isn't an experiment, self-aware or clinical in the least and there is a lesson to be learned from all the killing. There is a soul in Considine's Richard and each time he cuts a man down it takes a toll. In Dead Man's Shoes we see the cost of a human life taken to those around them and to those who take it. No one comes out clean but no one seems capable of doing anything but what they do and because they know they'll never change - death can also come with a certain measure of acceptance when you meet it face to face. It becomes a darkly beautiful thing.