Monday, December 23, 2013

The Tower (2012) Movie Thoughts

Babysitter-less single dad brings his daughter to work on Xmas eve as his workplace, the newly completed Tower Sky. And this high tech duo of residential skyscrapers is filling to the brim with workers, execs, residents, and security detail as the holiday eve's grand festivities begin to ramp up. Drama is an expected norm during the holidays (To be fair, there is already much of it from the offset.). But when a helicopter accident near the upper floors sets the upper floors ablaze, it's like watching our greatest fears of nature coming back with a harsh reminder of who's boss.

Never let it be said that South Korea doesn't love generations of Hollywood spectacle. Because the director of the ill-fated monster-dreck, Sector 7, Kim Ji-hoon has gone ahead and given the world his answer to Irwin Allen with The Tower. Adorned with grand sets, impressive effects, and an insane cast, his sprawling, often impressively mounted disaster epic is probably as big a South Korean film could ever be. Perhaps the ultimate expression of "making it" in terms of numbers, The Tower is on its face a tonal superball with budget to spare. As for whether or not it is a rousing success, perhaps that best requires a little more detail. While being infinitely better than his previous, this wacky take on Gullermin's The Towering Inferno suffers from perhaps too much in the promise, and rarely enough in the final execution. It's a grand piece that flags when it should soar, and largely due to almost copping the worst instincts of American directors like Michael Bay, or even Roland Emmerich. So yes, there is also an identity crisis happening throughout that keeps the whole from grabbing like it probably should.

One place where the film does shine, is in the colorful cast representing many of the classic disaster epic archetypes. From the previously mentioned single dad working as the building's maintenance supervisor, to the veteran firefighter(Sol Kyung-gu, in a well-grounded performance) with one more Xmas eve away from his long suffering wife. We even have a love interest in the form of chinese restaurant manager played by S.Korea's "Romance Queen", Son Ye-Jin. Also along for the ride, include a fresh young firefighting rookie with much to prove, a middle-aged janitor with a teen son watching helplessly from the ground, the woefully irresponsible company president, and a young cook with trendy girl in tow. The cast itself representing over a decade-plus's worth of memorable television stars and idols screaming away in what amounts to a great demo reel for a potentially singular theme park attraction.

But a lot of where Ji-hoon and company excel, are in technical acrobatics, and some effective deathtrap images. For a film of a significantly lower budget (at roughly 10 million US), there are moments here that rival the largest Hollywood can conceivably dole out. It's not unlike planting a blazing flag atop a mountain of bigger-is-better cinematic achievement. Among the ballsiest director reel ready moments include an out of the building hair-breadth escape via a window washing gondola with too many survivors on it, and a tense walk across an unstable, nearly all glass bridge between towers. If anything undermines these scenes, it's the editing which teeters from sharp, to downright corner-cutting as tension tends to suffer as a result. Several potentially groundbreaking action moments find themselves undone by choices that could so easily have been avoided with a little faith.

Much like these issues, the story setups are well established, yet the film tends to sell itself short. There are numerous subplots, not all of which are tied up by the Bay-esque finale. In fact, many of the central plot's problems stem from a deliberate effort in the first half to establish characters we would soon see as either borderline villianous get no real comeuppance. It is such a pervasive part of the latter third, that it almost clocks as accidental theme. The problems really seep in once it becomes clear that responsibility for all of this is almost scuttled to nearly ignored. Possibly a victim of heavy cutting, such a busy film seems hellbent on maintaining a two hour running time, which it barely clocks in at. If anything is improved by this, it's the lack of irritation that often follows in the wake of Ji-hoon's inspirations. Christian jokes aside, the piece never ends up anywhere as putrid and cheap as many of america's more recent disaster fare. This, plus some pretty decent performances across the board work as saving graces if there ever were any.

Still, there is a sense of global intent which is something worth celebrating a little here. In a work that almost metaphorically resembles the central setting, there is much to hem and haw about in terms of production, but seams occasionally point toward hazards that threaten the whole. But even if it isn't a top to bottom success, there is something to be said for cinema of the world responding to H-town with such ambition and energy.  There are fewer subgenres that speak to a universal audience the way grand scale calamity does, and The Tower does its ample best to be one that not only speaks to a local audience, but to all. Once one surrenders onesself to it, it's big, loud, occasionally delirious fun. But studio pressures, derivative choices, and some real dearth of emotional involvement remain its greatest structural defects.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Otaku Love Hurts: Cyborg, She Responded(2008) & Fujoshi Kanojo(2009)

Not sure how these films got lost in such a shuffle, but Sundays, when not steeped in projects of an outdoor nature, are often exercises in reaching back into old queues, only to realize why they stay buried as long as they do. And when this is regarding so-called romantic comedies tailor made to play to Japan's anime/manga loving crowd, it is also no wonder why recent fare like Pacific Rim feels like such fresh air. In lieu of the last decade's shift in production styling & attitude, it never ceases to amaze and dismay, the sheer lack of deep love and care that goes into such works. It is almost as if there is a quota to make, and appeasing certain interests are the only thing on the minds of all involved, and that a sincere love for the often wacky flights of fancy that Nihon-based scribbles can only deliver is lacking in a big way when talking the movie industry overseas. In the decades after a live action Video Girl Ai did plenty to offer just as much manga-esque silliness with a grounded charm that is endemic to a more universal language of filmic storytelling, it's kind of strange to see these contemporary tales of young love flat out miss any potentially healthy/thoughtful message that at times can happen in the funny pages. As both films feature young men in love with a mysterious, often exaggerated other, there's a troubling thread of crippling normalization that is happening, often in forced manners that not only speak to long held traditions in their native land, but of corporate message maintenance.

Starting with 2008's Cyborg, She Responded, we are in an impressively budgeted fantasy offering up the ultimate rendition of the so-called emotionless heroine (in this case, a Terminator-esque time traveling humanoid) and her relationship with a lonely otaku. (another thread that binds both films we are discussing together) Helmed by Kwak Jae-yong of My Sassy Girl fame, the story begins briskly as our lone protagonist, Jiro (Keisuke Koide) celebrates his birthday alone, purchasing his annual present to himself when he is reminded of the previous year when he encountered a most unusual, nameless girl(Haruka Ayase). Taken on a whirlwind chase around town, the seemingly free spirited girl ends the night not only blowing his mind with her antics, but just as simply vanishes from his life. Now merely a memory, things only accelerate into weird when an identical girl makes a grand entrance into the city, only to claim that she is a cyborg from the future, here to help Jiro avoid an impending disaster. Fortified with frightening reflexes, bizarre weaponry, and immense strength, Jiro's new bodyguard becomes something from dream girl to nuisance, to dream girl as the film strains to justify a man's attraction to simulacra. And while the film does want very much to be as much an action film as a love story, Jae-yong never seems capable of finding an amiable balance. Even when the script insists that the answers lie in oh-so-gimmicky time travel, there never seems to be any good reason for both characters to even like each other.

It becomes such a muddle, that one must inevitably give up and just drink in the occasionally amusing gags Jae-yong and crew must have had fun executing with our leads. Wish to see a lithe beauty trounce a couple of street punks up and down an alley? Check. Wish to see her tip over a bus full of commuters with her immensely heavy chassis? Check. Wish to see her take out desperate hostage takers and psychos, all while tending to a wet paper thin excuse for a romantic arc? Or how about an "ironic" gag involving a robot doing "The Robot" in a club scene? Check, check, check. The film is eager to please, but also seems so eager to be as much a somber tale of fated love, as well as an asian take on Reitman's My Super Ex-Girlfriend. The scripting and tone of the finished product reeks of stumbling in the development department, which only makes the emotional core all the more perplexing. In the end, it becomes pretty hard to discern just what the film wants to say. And considering the impressive production on display, it all boils down to a zero sum game with super-jokes.

So when we flash forward a year, one would think that a film centering on a lesser spotlighted faction of the anime/manga world would prove interesting in the quirky romance realm, but Fujoshi Kanojo (aka- How To Date An Otaku Girl, 2009) asserts otherwise with vigor. Adapted from the light novel by Pentabu, the on its face tale of an ordinary guy, and his two-years older co-worker's rocky relationship. The sticking point being her rampant love for male-to-male relationships in animation and comics. More a half-hearted commercial for so-called "rotten girl" proclivities, and yet another exercise in forcing a pair of people into love for the sake of the story, rather than what is actually necessary for the characters. It is simply the worst kind of sentiment disguised as love-laden fluff due largely missing out on perhaps the other big elephant sharing duplex with Cyborg; dealing with two characters that have no real reason to like each other.

As much as the film's opening "confession" scene wishes to offer up a most unusual relationship, all we get is dysfunction, and often in the name of overselling. Unwilling to make the pair into uniquely complimentary characters with some understandable gulfs in between, director, Atsushi Kaneshige seems uninterested in the material, and only offers up a shrill view of this side of the obsessive fan world. Title character, Yoriko(Wakana Matsumoto) almost off the bat comes off as controlling, avoidant, and generally hyperbolic. And this is often shared with her friends, now just getting to know her new boyfriend, the incredibly ordinary, Hinata (Shunsuke Daito). Right from the offset, and despite her warning, it is clear that he is not one hundred percent ready for the oddball life of his new partner. (much of this consists of her dubbing her new beau as "Sebastian" - a loyal servant name, and making often bizarre demands on the regular) And while that indeed could make for a mildly engaging diversion about something many fan types go through, the film seems perfectly comfortable being as a sub-par commercial for numerous anime stores, and events, while playing up the fujoshi lifestyle as a club for unreasoning harpies. One would wish for a more sensitive way to describe it, but the direction seems unwilling to sell it otherwise. Even when there is a sticking point that harms Yoriko's ability to accept that her boyfriend really does care for her despite her lifestyle, it never amounts to anything compelling, let alone substantial for the story.

There is a general feeling of apathy, and almost contempt that permeates the core conflict that it occasionally infects both the performances, and pacing. So when the second half comes, and the inevitable fissure between both leads comes to a head, matters are made worse when the film takes on a tar-like slog with its pace, as if this is all meant to mean anything. It all ends up as inert as a dud bullet, with only an implication of a debate, but one that never really sees any real exploration. In fact, when things heat up, all it takes is a character being sent overseas to fuel a finale which accelerates to becoming one of the more forced final acts of a "romantic comedy" imaginable. It's so jarring as to be borderline disturbing to be frank.

In fact, the forced nature of taking both films' leads who would normally be seen as aberrations by the mainstream at large, only bolsters a grand admission of ignorance on the part of the filmmakers. One would think that after decades of books, documentaries, and even animation observing this phenomenon, that there would at least be some semblance of understanding of the humanity behind what makes such individuals tick. (Even in Densha Otoko's eye-rolling view of the 2D enamored, there is a faint amount of sweetness to it that is lacking here.) While Cyborg's Jiro is something of a non-entity, Fujosji's Yoriko comes off as imbalanced until the film forces her into being something average Japanese society can tolerate. Latent sexism aside, there is enough happening in both films that grant us a stillborn picture of an industry still unwilling to humanize a misunderstood minority- not to mention women. It's to the point that society's narrative for quirky central characters see them without any depth of voice, and happy to keep it that way.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Switching - Goodbye Me (Tenkosei, Sayonara Anata - 2007) Movie Thoughts

If one had told another more casual cinephile that the man responsible for the increasingly beloved cult favorite, HAUSU (1977) was responsible for this deceptively sedate take on one of 1980s cinema's creakiest premises, they may be considered a fibber at best. On the surface, there is little here to remind viewers of the commercial director who's visions of psychedelic nightmares & carnivorous pianos burned themselves into the minds of many an adventurous movie fan. Some might even see a work like this as some manner of legitimization of a once rabblerousing auteur, now turned mass market craftsman. But with this adaptation of a book by Hisashi Yamanaka, we are given an unexpectedly heartfelt, and yet no less strange tale of two souls forced to best understand one another (in the most literal way possible).

Daydream-addicted teen, Kazumi finds herself at a loss when her childhood boy pal, Kazuo returns to her small town with very limited memory of the days they spent together as kids of neighboring noodle shop owners. Determined to jog the retransplanted city boy, she takes him to the well which is the source of her family's tasty noodles, only to end in an accident which ends up magically switching their bodies. Now dazed, and unsure how to remedy this new problem, the two must work together as friends and family begin to question their bizarre shifts in behavior. And as if this isn't enough, multiple angles in how the two know each other are explored. But alas youth is brief, and neither are very good at playing each other.

Confounding matters, are things that are already going on in each other's lives since they had last seen one another. Kazuo's father is now out of the picture after a divorce, and may be in the middle of a long distance relationship with a fellow piano genius in the city. While Kazumi has been dating a straight-faced philosphy junkie for some time now.  Life now, more than a little interrupted, matters can only be more overwhelming by the fact that they are no longer children. Whether it be troubles with love, or just pesky anatomy, so much is to be forced into the open by sheer cosmic luck. And this is perhaps Obayashi's most fascinating wrinkle to the whole tale. It's a film that is as interested in what happens when a girl once smitten, is now inhabiting the life of someone so important, and vice versa. The language of modern manga is turned fully on its head, as the convenience of neighborly love takes on an almost crash course aura. It seems to be asking, "what does it mean to truly love another?" And while the film may not be wholly successful in this area, it does have enough earnestness to get by.

Obayashi's gift for exploring often sexual themes with the goofy innocence akin to a child's imagination is about as sedate as it gets here. As so many japanese films of the mid-oughts, there is a want on the production's end for this is to become not unlike so many coming-of-age fantasies that are often one step removed from a Makoto Shinkai anime. But what Tenkosei offers up, is a unique series of not only funny, and dramatic questions about the current era's obsessions with nostalgic love, but even a pointed criticism of such thinking. Despite the fact that both central characters find themselves in a situation that they never asked for(they even do the unthinkable by pleading directly with disbelieving parents of their plight), all the protesting in the world won't change the fact that perceptions will never be the same. Even as the visuals of the film seem awash in fall colors, and perhaps even in line with all that is safe within so many recent TBS produced family films of the era, there is an aggressive playfulness that indicates that we are still in the hands of a visionary unwilling to grant us an ordinary piece of youth-driven pep. Even the film's flowing camera work and editing predates JJ Abrams' Star Trek by two years, and makes for a surprisingly kinetic experience for at least two thirds. 

Much of the film's running time is made up of almost episodic stops and starts as the duo try desperately to adjust to their newfound, awkward reality. And it is in some of the smallest moments that it all shines so nicely. Having the leads played by both Misako Renbetsu & Naoyuki Morita perhaps makes all the difference in the world as both do admirable jobs as kids with almost perfect androgyny built into them. From vocal work, to body language, rarely does it ever feel forced, or done for sheer yuks. And when it is funny, more often than not, it tends to convince as the story carries more than a few surprises locked inside. And while there are a few missteps along the way (an encounter with a random groper in a park, and a perhaps unnecessarily sappy third act), there is more than enough here to warrant a look as one of Japan cinema's unsung heroes of quirk weaves his magic in ways that are unexpectedly sober and effective where it counts.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity (2013) Movie Thoughts

When director, Alfonso Cuarón embarked on what became one of my favorite films of the last decade, his mind-boggling fable, Children Of Men, it had soon become clear that we were indeed in the hands of a potential master. Flash forward a long seven years, and one couldn't be blamed for feeling like something great(or troubled) might be on the horizon. Imagine the relief exhibited earlier today upon catching his long take space odyssey, Gravity, where not only the term is solidified, but is proven time and again in a breathless 90 minutes that is bound to have film scholars and fans alike sharing stories of their first viewing for years. It's the kind of technical and dramatic marvel that comes but once a generation, and possibly the very best film of its kind in several decades.

Gravity opens well above the Earth, as bio-med engineer, Ryan Stone is on her first space mission. Along with a small crew, including soon to be retired veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), she is installing a newly developed module for the Hubble telescope, when debris from a destroyed Russian satellite is sent hurtling toward her and her crew. Soon, she is almost completely lost before being saved by Kowalsky, and what had started as a most routine space mission, has now become a gut tightening fight for survival as the duo are forced to seek a means of rescue,..if there is any means of one at all. With communication with mission control lost, and humanity no less than thousands of miles away, the lone remaining crew members are at odds with the harshest of elements (not to mention the threat of the debris from earlier making a return attack come full orbit) as oxygen is quickly running out. With a plot this simple, it's easy to feel like this could very well just be a technical showcase (which it can most certainly be called - perhaps one of the most astonishing in recent memory), but the combination of so many more elements cements the entire film as something far more.

As the story unfolds, we are given active, yet potent glimpses into the inner lives of our leads. We learn that Kowalsky's penchant for shared stories have already been well worn among the crew, including those of a marriage gone south, and his rather cool-headed nature even as doom creeps around every corner. But the film's central concerns lie with the neophyte, Stone, who soon reveals a family tragedy that eventually led her to this path. Intermingling this with her growing affinity for silence, and a deep inability for "letting go", hers is a soul in deep need of rebirth. And with perhaps none-too-subtle imagery throughout each stage of the crisis, we get just that. And none of this would have been sold as well if Bullock weren't up to the task, which she is. Again, as straight forward as the film is, the range required for both leads is impressive considering how demanding it is for viewers to accept that the two are actually out there in the black. And both she and Clooney make such indelible impressions in what is clearly one of the most difficult shooting environments imaginable. (To balance between such intense physical action, and performance must make for some unique stories from all involved.) The end result, is hard to shake once it all abruptly ends.  

Finding personal rebirth under the most inhospitable of circumstances is at the heart of Gravity. From a script originally written by Alfonso's son, Jonas, the film piles challenge upon challenge in the best tradition of classic survival tales, more often relegated to the mountains, or ocean.  And while there is a certain popcorniness to the dialogue that does harken to earlier days of Hollywood, there is also a technical knowing at work, as well as a daredevil's spirit in how Cuarón and his crew expand upon the wild extended takes of Children. There are also some truly mindbending moments where the camera takes us from the usual observer's view of the action, to being Ryan, within her helmet. Cuarón's primary aim is to make this into a definitive immersive experience, and it succeeds tremendously. The ultimate effect feels almost like a technical lunge forward from Gaspar Noé's work on his film, Enter The Void. The thematic goal seems to be spiritually aligned with a certain celebrated filmmaker, as he sought to explore humanity's first voyages into space in that once so optimistic 2001. Coming out the other end, and becoming a reborn creature is key, and Bullock's Stone makes for an absorbing surrogate. We find ourselves becoming helpless, frightened, and even determined as the unknown beckons louder and louder.

There aren't enough words of praise for what Cuaron and company have executed here. What Gravity does for the film medium is enormous, and what it has to say to all people of the Earth is multifold. That pitch perfect mix between the art house and the multiplex. It's simply the kind of work that ushers in new eras, and offers up promise of what is to come with the cinema, and it does so with precision, energy, and soul. Indeed, "life in space is impossible". But will it always be? Will the frontiers always remain so? And what does it take to see through, and beyond our limits to reach them? Gravity dares us all to find reserves from within, and does so with grand scale and startling poignancy. Highly recommended. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Room 237(2012): Movie Thoughts

When looking back at film school, among my favorite realms of study, was the one about the art of the hidden theme. Having been taken through films I once understood in one manner, only to come out with a completely new appreciation for it by way of a little nudging via educator, there is a growing number of film lovers who now see themselves playing the game of "spot the hidden symbols". (Occasionally to points of absurdity) And among the first directors that these admirers of the cinema latch onto for subterfuge of meaning, will always be the one and only Stanley Kubrick, who's works continue to invite new boughs of interpretation and criticism. His works continue to inspire and confound, only made so much more inviting by way of the man himself, his perfectionist nature, and almost manic resistance to mainstream culture, particularly of the U.S.

So upon living within this era of post modern film criticism, one might fault the makers of Room 237 to be something bordering on exploitative, as the piece centers on audio confessionals from a group of superfans, with some eye-opening, some not so much assessments on Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of the Stephen King novel. The famed horror tale of a family on the brink of bloody calamity whilst caretaking an isolated mountain hotel, while deceptively simple in plot, carried more than enough mystery, and utter creepiness for numerous movies. Very much like the director's made-up shrubbery labyrinth that makes for center stage of the film's finale, there is so much in the entire piece that never adds up, leading to a disorienting, sometimes nightmare-like aura. So it is no wonder that Kubrick's interpretation of the story has led to such a response, and reappraisal over the decades. In fact, since the advent of the internet, The Shining remains one of the most thematically pilfered, and theorized films of all time. But what Rodney Aschner brings to the debate, is something that is not as often addressed, is perhaps far too little too late.

237's bulk largely consists of mostly cleverly edited and manipulated footage from not only Kubrick's work, but also of other well regarded pieces combined with the voices of the film's core theorists. Each sharing their memories of the film as well as their often amusing interpretations of its symbols and themes. From the half-sensible, to the outright bizarre, the intercutting between each guest, and the footage often creates a sense that we are in the lair of the truly post-modern. That fine line that many a film fan flirts with when they find a work that inevitably gets stuck deep in their craw, unable to leave lest investigation is enacted by any means. And while there is a decent amount to chew on here as we see multiple famous moments at various speeds, and points of high definition manipulation as each theory is mentioned and elaborated upon in hopes of making adequate case. Theories abound include one popular one regarding the film as an allegory for the systematic acquisition of America, and the genocide of the native peoples. It also goes headlong into some strange ones, such as it all being a thinly veiled admission that Kubrick assisted in the fabrication of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

But the commentary that was perhaps the one that spoke the most to this viewer, was more a summation of the film being about how the past impinges upon the present. These moments are dispersed throughout, and are among the most stirring, and truest feeling of them all, and mostly because it truly feels like a thematic that had already been a long shared one by Kubrick in his previous works, only not quite done so subterranean before. As if the genre itself were being toyed with in the name of calling out very real horrors perpetrated by the very people responsible for the world that led to our current one. It's a startling series of revelations and ideas that are both prominent in the visuals, and carefully interwoven into the narrative of Jack, Wendy, and Danny up at the Overlook. And even if it isn't a definitive theory, it certainly is an emotionally satisfying one for one who has long admired the film despite it's often disorienting nature. Whether the film is utilizing the language of subliminal advertising, commenting on the horrors of the holocaust, or just quizzical due to the film's narrative, and physical paradoxes, there are so many threads left lying about some finding far too enticing to ignore.

The public loves a good series of open ended questions, but are also occasionally attracted to hypersimplified answers, especially when considering a popular movie. And while it would be fun to map out what we assume to be the gospel truth of an enigmatic work, especially one made by one of the most mysterious creative minds of a generation, very often the questions are the most attractive element. Much less about the meanings behind one of Kubrick's most accessible, yet divisive films, and more about a growing consciousness of mind regarding the intent of cinema, and what it can do to such a consciousness when the established rules are thrown out. It is a love of pop gone borderline clinical at times, and at others, a telling earful from those unwilling to allow mystery to thrive, even if that was part of a work's special alchemy. While not a thoroughly compelling look at a horror favorite, 237 is that rare celebration of discourse that many fans enjoy after experiencing an effective piece of art. Often fun, frustrating, and occasionally TMI, the rabbit hole is a discovery that simply cannot be denied.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Side Journeys:Objects As Actor in Pasadena

As the summer season eked out what looked to be a convulsive series of death throes that continue slightly into today, I was able to venture out with partner to a local gathering after my own heart. Last Saturday's visit to Objects As Actor, a one-of-a-kind symposium regarding the importance of the tactile in cinema was one akin to a free treasure trove of all things that make the Kaijyu roll over with excitement. Organized by Noam Toran, and taking place over nearly one full day, this diverse celebration of the movie world's use and reliance on vital trinkets, articles, and clutter was one attended by not only many local students here at Art Center College Of Design, but also many film enthusiasts, would be creators, and even science fiction writers/commentators. All in the name of exploring the importance of not only making fictional realms into believable realities, but of allowing viewers to better explore the human role in all of it. And while we weren't there for the beginning, or the end, we caught just enough presentation and discussion to fill a multitude of projects. As direct, as it was philosophical in nature, the welcoming feel of the campus, coupled by some truly interactive guests and attendees made it all worthwhile.

Among the standout guests in attendance, were..

Rob O' Neill - Filmmaker, Designer, Lead Character Technical Developer and programmer over at Dreamworks. His talk regarding the importance of objects as character symbols was good natured fun.

Amy Kane - Foley Artist - A true spiritual blast from my past, as she detailed (with assistance and props including dirt and breakable boards) the still very relevant art of foley sound work for films. Discussed her favorite projects, and the challenges of making sounds that are utterly convincing in both fantasy and realistic worlds. Was happy to hear stories of her entry into the business, as well as her days working on shows such as Deadwood, and big films like Oz The Great And Powerful. We even had a demonstration involving her boot work attuned to Woody Harrelson's character in Zombieland, and some gushing at her new gig with the new series, Masters Of Sex. So many memories of listening to and speaking with multi award winner Solange Schwalbe about the delicate humanness attributed to sound design, and how vital it is for us to not notice it. It's very much the ninjutsu of film post-production. This was the section where I had the most fun asking questions afterward, and hearing of how necessary it still is to the overall process.

(Even when an upcoming guest wondered why this hadn't been rendered obsolete as of yet. Not the most respectful question. But one easily answered, as technology has yet to function as realistically and chaotically as organic beings do. And that the average viewer can very much still tell the difference.)

Following a short break (and cleanup of the stage area..) came a brief presentation by Kane's assistant who's name escapes me unfortunately, who detailed a favorite use of objects as weapon against the Hollywood studio system by none other than Canadian master, David Cronenberg. Through his film Dead Ringers(1988), which was produced shortly after his experience making the 1986 remake ,The Fly, he was able to utilize the psychotic twin characters played by Jeremy Irons to make a thinly veiled jab at the gap between artists, the opportunistic, and the commercial. In the film, Irons plays two deeply troubled, yet, successful gynecologists who become dangerously curious about treating who they see to be "mutant" subjects. Needing new gear to handle the delicate work, and finding no legitimate means of finding it, they seek help from the seedy local art scene. It is here that we are witness to not only the main characters and their disintegrating mindscapes, but of the director's own dissatisfaction with the bottom line. For him, film is a compulsion, and not a mere factory for profit.

For those who have yet to see Dead Ringers, this is yet another means of not only this presenter, but of mine to urge more to experience it for themselves.

Lastly for us, came the presentation by science fiction commentator and writer, Gary Westfahl, who's recent book on cyberpunk luminary, William Gibson, explores the role of design and product in the advancement in speculative fiction. His extended thoughts regarding the changing roles of technology as background to virtual foreground was a largely enticing one, albeit at times lacking in the humanity that had graced much of the presentations that had come before. From mentioning some of science fiction's most memorable uses of objects, and environments, to Gibson's almost all-enveloping dedication to detail, Westfahl's presentation was almost fetishistic in how it saw the role of detailed storytelling in the overall of human existence. While there was indeed much to mine here, there was a significant sense of the post-human happening here that almost echoed Ray Kurzweil for a time. And when considering the art of visual storytelling, such as in film, we remain in an era very much in need of familiarity in hopes of grounding us enough to invest in any wild narrative.

Be it a home upright piano on the soundtrack, to a shot of a character holding an old photo of a loved one, film always finds some thread to the simple in hopes of launching not only our fear and wishes, but our comforts beyond the stratosphere. Film, is a means of filling ourselves into the space in which we are invited by the creators. And in this way, we are bringing in our own thoughts, memories, and feelings into another's headspace. Objects are one important way this connection can happen unabated, often offering us much to consider upon walking out of the auditorium, and back into the world.

They are a link to our more fragile humanity.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Streaming Now - DREDD(2012) : 5 Reasons Why Missing It In Theatres Was A Mistake

Boy, did we really let genre cinema down last year.

 When the modestly budgeted DREDD 3D was released to theatres with something of a lightweight, 3D-centric ad campaign, so many of us dismissed this new take on the 2000 AD classic without heeding the ravings of many a lucky viewer. And even as it has become something of a home video hit, the welt of so many of us not heading out to support this grungy, pared-down actioner has yet to heal. And now that it is streaming for all to see via your friendly neighborhood Netflix, we have zero excuse.

Still not convinced? Well here are some really big reasons for why this pretty much obliterates memories of the mid-1990s piece of Mouse-produced malady.,

5. No Origin. No Problem.

One of the biggest pieces of storytelling that has come to plague recent comic book adaptations, is a near-mindless reliance upon retelling the origin stories of characters that are best explained through their actions. Dredd is the kind of "product of his environment" character that is best explored on a move, and Karl Urban's take on the character is well handled by a script that is comfortable enough in its own skin to just let things play out. From the opening scene, he is on the job, and despite the fact that we never see his face, we gather enough to understand that he is the very ideal of what his society has become. Cold, detached, all business, and unexpectedly laced with a hint of sadness. Once we are in the thick of the action (which is right from the getgo), the film never lets up, and allows us to view him from multiple angles by way of his trial-day rookie partner, Psy. Judge Anderson(Olivia Thirlby). It's a device that has been used in many adaptations before, but here, we have a thematic one-two punch served within a deceptively simple action setup.

4. The Power Of Simplicity.

By setting a majority of your film in a confined space ( in this case, a skyscraper-sized apartment complex), your film is allowed to make the absolute best out of a limited budget. Strangely enough, my initial impressions of the film took me back to my childhood, and the stripped down favorites I grew up with. That's right, much of Dredd is ostensibly a John Carpenter-esque piece of hardcore. With the judges trapped inside a building, surrounded by hapless tenants, as well as an army of gang members toting some serious hardware, there is an almost reverse Assault On Precinct 13 air about the film.(It doesn't hurt that the pulsating electronic score by Peter Leonard-Morgan evokes mental images of Assault, and even Cameron's original Terminator) And even as many make parallels to Gareth Edwards' The Raid, there is an astonishing amount of attention to detail, and imagery here that perfectly compliments the nasty side of this dystopian hell in which these characters reside. Old saws truly do apply to this instance, as the film plays it wholly straight, and without terrible one-liners or a desperate need to over explain. It does what it does, and will not make excuses.

3. Frightening & Fascinating Villainy

It's pretty hard to make a mark with an action vehicle heavy, but Lena Headey does so with the assured poise of a pro. Her "Ma Ma", is a broken, terrifying piece of work. A one-time working girl, who has seen far too much, and can only see a bloody way out of a life of pain. Even as the film rarely makes caveats for us to feel sympathy considering her often vile acts, there is a tragedy to her overall speech, posture and gait that imply far more than is on the page. It's pretty clear that her more recent life as gang leader, and possible future kingpin has been one of sheer survival. And she will resort to anything to maintain her standing - even murdering innocents. All in the name of saving what small piece of the city she has attained for herself. It's a remarkable, sneaky performance that adds surprising depth to the themes that hover ever-so carefully around the siege narrative.

2. Themes Of Perception Vs. Desperation

One of the movie's most unexpected elements, is perhaps a favorite of mine in that Dredd himself as an icon of intensified moral authority, is placed under just as much a symbolic microscope as the villains. In fact, I wonder if that was perhaps the entire goal this time around with Danny Boyle's occasional collaborator, Alex Garland on the screenwriting duties. There is much to be mined here through the eyes of rookie Judge Anderson, who goes into the fray without a helmet, and soon is reminded of her own background as an impoverished child - unfettered by the cynicism that seems primed to absorb every single person in Megacity One. She sees all sides of the conflict cornered into a world of binaries. She sees the questions lingering all about the bursts and the blood, and becomes the human center of the piece. There is even a representative on Ma Ma's side in the form of an appointed security monitor, who is clearly doing this out of fear of death - or worse. In a society that has been pushed into a world of black and white, oversimplified "right" versus "wrong", there is only carnage. When all is assessed, it is Anderson who might very well represent an unspoken quantity in a world obsessed with fighting over scraps of the dead. She is the eyes of what has been lost, and hopefully represents a more even-handed future. Not bad for a movie rife with almost balletic gore & bloodshed.

1. A Truly Adult Action Piece

We are living in the era of the PG-13 action film. Sad to say, but this carries a lot of truth. We have been lulled into expecting most action fare to either cater to teens, or to adults with lessened visual and thematic raucousness. (IE - lessened visceral impact) Thank goodness to director, Pete Travis, and company for sticking to their guns and delivering a rarity outside of straight to video fare; a mean and nasty action film with thought and vision to spare. A wild reminder of just how good movies like this can be when made in the hands of inventive and resourceful craftspeople, looking to reclaim what has become a long lost genre relative. Marketing can only be blamed so much. The rest is always..on us.

Nice to sense that relative around, even if for a little while.

Again. It's now at Netflix

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The World's End (2013) Movie Thoughts

One time would-be high school legend, Gary King hasn't changed.

A relic of the late 1980s-early 1990s, a near-mid-life King is suddenly infused with a zealous passion to seek out his long-since distanced buddies in hopes of "getting the band back together", and traveling away from London, to quiet Newton Haven. The mission: finishing an epic-sized pub crawl with minds(and perhaps bladders) intact. Problem? Unlike his more successful friends, Gary is seen to have quite a problem with not only addiction, but an almost toxic reliance on nostalgia to fuel him on. Still donning black clothes, as well as his old Sisters Of Mercy regalia, his life has seemingly been on pause for more than two decades. Now more invested in reliving the past than ever, things take a sinister turn when not only have the once lived-in comforts of Newton Haven given way to a homogenized shell of its former self, but the locals seem to be acting more than a little..well,..mechanical. Nothing ever stays, which seems to be high on the minds of older cineaste comrades, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg & Nick Frost as they bring their so-called Cornettos Saga full circle.

Fair warning, unlike the style and gag heavy openings of both Shaun Of The Dead, and Hot Fuzz, The World's End takes on what many might consider to be something of a methodical departure. Gone from the film's prologue sequences are the rapid fire editing, as well as a frenetic energy that punctuated those previous. And what comes about in its stead, is more akin to a truly squirm heavy setup involving Gary's drive toward rallying up the boys for this singular night of liver devastation. From seeking out his mousy, unusual buddy/ son of a car dealer, Pete(Eddie Marsan), to digging up his old musician buddy in arms, Steven(Paddy Considine), signals immediately fly above that things had long been buried in the past, with the hopes that they would stay as such. This is made even moreso upon his visit to his nervous, dressed to sell real estate pal, Oliver (Martin Freeman), where the tension begins to reach taut proportion. The back and forth between Gary and his long lost mates paints a troubling picture of his relationship to the man he most perceived to be his best..Andrew. So when time finally comes for Gary and Andy (Frost, now a corporate lawyer) to catch up, it's pretty solid that a rift between them has festered for some time. There's no doubt here that this once stalwart partner has now seen life well beyond that of Gary's incessant need for near infantile notions of freedom, and will hear of none of these impulses anymore. The rhythm of these scenes whilst still funny and observant, contain with them a queasy quality that has up until now been in carefully patched corners of the previous films.

 It is as if there is a deep need for Pegg, Frost, and Wright to look into a darker abyss than they had been privy to before. In fact, the one most likely culprit for this stylistic feint is to capture the vibe of oh so many popular UK films of the 1990s centering on elder men reaching into the past to feel vibrant once again. So when it comes to the boys here, and the legendary Golden Mile gone awry, it all feels natural.

And yet, despite the weirdness that welcomes them on their alcohol-laden quest, this only seems to bolster Gary's drive to complete it, all the way to the eighteenth local bar known only as The World's End(because after a sudden altercation with the machine-like humanoids, perspective must chime in). Dragging Andy, Peter, Oliver, and Steven along the way in hopes of not looking too conspicuous, the fights and chases begin coupling one upon another until either these once good friends are assimilated, or just plain torn apart.  It is roughly around this section of the piece, that the recognizable Edgar Wright signatures begin in true earnest. His flare for symbolic, stealthy comedy, and blistering action (largely courtesy of choreographer, Brad Allen who also worked with Wright on Scott Pilgrim) is in full force as the crew takes on a familiar looking run across town in hopes of surviving the night. And all the while, Andy (now a water-drinking teatotaler) fumes at what has become of his one-time friend. This is made all the more complicated as we come to learn of how matters had come to such a sorry state. Soon, it becomes a dual race of sorts; one between our protagonists, and the town, and the other between Andy versus Gary's fleeting sobriety.

And if this isn't enough, matters are tangled even further when Oliver's sister, Sam (Rosamund Pike) visits the boys, only for us to discover that old feelings truly die hard. (And with our lead finding himself unable to shift out of high school mode, matters are made marginally more awkward.) With the introduction of Sam, we are now witness to greater examinations of Gary's stunted nature. When she delivers what is some of the film's most telling dialogue to the face of a man so desperate to hold on to what has clearly past, it's both funny and unquestionably painful. Akin to growing pains long avoided.

All part of a buildup to a finale that may come as a shock to some ready for more of the same zaniness we have come to expect from these movies. When everything comes to a head here, it truly does come out swinging, bloody knuckles and all. And it's especially tricky to pull such a thing off when considering that all three films exist in completely unique universes. We have grown to laugh and love the two main stars, and do not wish for something like this to happen between them. And that is exactly what Wright is going for, as it becomes more and more apparent, that this is possibly the most personal of the three films. That this is about the worst parts of our current generation of adults, and how susceptible this perhaps makes us unto almost Starbucks-sipping pod-people living in a dot-commified Appleverse.

Perfect for a finale involving the nature of temporal shifting, the robot-like villains of the piece represent another form of extreme that the previous movies had yet to explore. Unlike the hyperviolent armies of zombies, and rabid conservatives of the last two, there is an eerie prescience to all that are these mysterious, blue-blooded automatons. An obvious jab at the recent spate of globalized lifestyle marketing and architecture, it makes for the perfect adversary for everything that Gary stands for, even if he had never considered it in any real sense before. This stabs at the heart of all three films, as they are bound by viewing growth as something that can so easily go off the rails if bound by any extreme amount of activity/inactivity. It seems that in the years since SPACED!, and near nine years since Shaun (Hard to believe that as fact at this point), Wright & Pegg specifically seem particularly alarmed at an England that is being lost in a cacophony of cultureless artifice, often in the guise of a benevolent new infrastructure. Almost a modern spin on the Body Snatchers mythos, while the most ordinary of us both ready for change, but not enough to warrant facile, cattle-like servitude.

But the film's biggest, most effective weapon is in its cast, and how well everyone handles the madness from slow-burn to full tilt apocalypse. The most potent surprises being Marsan and Considine, who embody both classic chum archetypes, and infuse them with a sensitivity and sense of real longing that only gives the whole chase a great amount of juice. Marsan's Peter is a quintessential underdog, teeming with his life long written in for him, and an unexpected amount of trauma that sneaks out in even the most absurd sequences. And Considine's Steven, while having something of a more relaxed life, is one of unrequited feelings, and a chance to seal something that has long been neglected while Freeman's Oliver, is a great parody of the definitive modern man, complete with earpiece,perfect hair, and a strange utterance to all the weird that surrounds them. And when Pike comes along for the ride, she becomes something of a center for the bunch, a character that could be more on the page, but is just enough to deliver some great emotional weight for the other.

And all of this is great backup band work for what is easily the most challenging work Pegg and Frost have done on film thus far. One of the most unique phenomena surrounding the films they have made with Wright, is how they can wildly juggle wild, referential farce, and still find room for human drama and thematic density. And this is largely due to the natural chemistry that so many have grown to appreciate over the years. So when the two decide to play characters that are easily the most empathy-challenged they have played to date, it becomes crucial that there is a careful set of reveals throughout the running time in order to pull everything off. It has to be virtually mathematical, and somehow, Wright has done justice to these performers by creating something that is not only funny, and energizing, it is also appropriately moving. It's a long friendship taken to an illogical edge, and it is terrific work.

Taking a close look at what director Edgar Wright has been slowly constructing over his last decade plus worth of film and television work, one might see the vision of an individual not merely caught up in the minutiae of popular culture. His films are not mere exercises in pop culture revelry. Even as a lot of what led to what we know of him though his films seem littered with reverence to genre works of a specific generation, there is also a great amount of effort made to best understand the things that make this generation tick, for better or for worse. Especially in the works he has written along with Pegg, it tends to seek this wild balance between knowing the landscape, and questioning what allowed it to shape in the first place. And with World's End, we are host to the most harrowing side of this conundrum. Where a yearning for balance is prime, and that perhaps a small manner of sloth may well be the key to figuring out more colorful solutions. With the tale of Gary & friends in Newton Haven, matters are drawn to a close in a mostly sure-handed manner. If it finds itself in any trouble, it is in the final reel, where it becomes unclear as to where the ideas might just be coming from outside the personal.

And while this means the Three Flavor Cornettos has come to an emotionally satisfying, often deeply funny close, something tells me that the trio of Wright, Pegg, and Frost will have plenty more to share with us in due enough time. There seems to be far too much creative juice left in these guys to stop now. If anything, The World's End feels like a herald to a whole new stage in the careers of these three, and I can't wait to see what's to come.

(Oh, and one more thing. Pub names as chapter stops is a pretty fun idea. Should make for another terrific easter egg for when the Blu-ray comes around.)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Bellflower (2011) Movie Brief

Taking a brief detour into fiercely indie territory, it was with great anticipation that I was able to finally catch Evan Glodell's hellish ride through northern Los Angeles, BELLFLOWER, and it truly lives up to the near two-years worth of talk that had surrounded it.

Whipped together on an absurdly small for its results 17,000 dollars, the film follows Woodrow (Glodell, in a raw performance) and Aiden(Tyler Dawson) , a pair of traveling brothers from Wisconsin who decide to move to the west coast as they hone their penchant for engineering apocalyptic motor vehicles. Both boys are intensely enamored with the 1981 George Miller classic, The Road Warrior, the pair seek to live life freely whilst creating perhaps the ultimate in wasteland transport. Their stop to live in a less than normally tended to suburb of the LA hills, becomes a center for great inspiration, and ultimately tragedy, as both find themselves entranced by a pair of locals. The seemingly more shy Woodrow finds himself almost instantly in love with the unpredictable, and fearless Milly(a terrific Jessie Wiseman) , while the more daring and often obsessive Aidan fawns quietly over her pal, Courtney(Rebekah Brandes). And even as the first half of the film implies a fly-on-the-wall romantic drama of the handheld variety, it is merely prelude to what becomes something of a shared worst case scenario. Not only do these tangled relationships threaten the boys' original vision of purpose, but of everything anyone here holds dear.

Flashing forward in time, and even into alternate resolutions and perhaps false realities, Glodell's achievement here is evident in just how assured and adventurous he and his crew are in making this one disorienting ride. Even in the craft displayed in the machines being utilized in the story, there is an immediate feeling that what we are dealing with here is a work in the hands of those unafraid to take what little was on hand and make something capable of making a deeply ingrained burn.

While one can up and dismiss much of this film as a tale of grizzled hipster angst, there is indeed more going on underneath the heat-saturated visuals. As interested in seeking how a lesser seen quantity lives, it is also excited to dive headlong into the lives of those who have left behind a more modern, structured path, and into a life of anticipated anarchy - despite the suburban milieu around everyone. It is almost as if the brothers do not even see the domestication that is ready to consume them if they stay too long. With BELLFLOWER as sanctuary slowly dissolving into a self imposed Hades, we catch Woodrow's perhaps lingering wishes for earthly wants, as Aiden's dependence upon his other half to make good on their quest to ride out the end. And while a lot of the film goes from uncomfortable to outright gut-wrenching, it is truly hard to deny what has taken place here. 

Blistering in it's visuals, presentation, and performances, this is a singular piece of first timer work that burns promise into the eyes and mind like so few debuts ever do. It dares us to peer harder into the minds of the driven, only to see ashen embers at the laps of those prone to detours..

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Sadako (3D, 2012) Movie Findings

Oh dear..

In the annals of filmdom, there often comes a time when a character makes such a deep impression upon the global stage, that it inevitably becomes a matter of business to continue resurrecting them. This is especially demonstrable when regarding the horror world. And this came about long before the Jasons or Michael Myers' of the neighborhood. The people love a good villain to project their daily fears onto, as well as their own frustrations, and in a horror antagonist, there is often seen a chance to dance with our darker tendencies for another 90s minutes in prepackaged, often diminishing sensations. Far from the initial spark that resonated so well with audiences, it becomes something of a dog and pony act, where the aforementioned monster finds themselves replicated once again, only to lose impact, and become something more akin to something almost safe and cuddly.(and unquestionably financial) How does this happen? Simple. Shock, is something based largely upon our inability to comprehend, and once this is undone by way of repetition, the initial reactions are eventually dulled out like an overused knife. It simply lacks any of the sharpness, the shine, or the mystery that it once may have possessed in order to penetrate our best defenses.

Enter Sadako 3D (Or in the Netflix titling scheme, Sadako), a long belated return to the Ringu franchise that once sailed high as the flagship of Japan's horror boom of the late 1990s. And when we last saw our favorite vengeful spirit, she had been haunting and killing by way of a VHS cassette which cursed any of of its viewers who watched it. The only way to quell this poor girl's wrath, was to either consecrate her, or to pass the tape along in an endless game of killer chain action. Flash forward to the digital era, where streaming video has now become the vessel of choice. And the twisted actions of a male J-pop reject may have disturbed the long-haired menace, sending her back to invade the world of the living once again. Filmed in colorful digital, and originally made for 3D screenings in Japan, Sadako is the very representation of a franchise on artificial life support. But among the strangest things about this Nakata-free entry in the series, is in how much it embraces the tech of now, but seems dead set on sending the three dimensional gimmick back several decades. (More on this soon.)

Satomi Ishihara, is Akane Ayukawa, a teacher of a catholic high school runs afoul of the latest keitai trend, a "Cursed video" that causes suicides to occur to all who find it. As students of her class find themselves dead, and the video seems to be quite legitimate, Akane and local detectives must seek the source before the legendary S returns, ready to wreak greater havoc than ever before. Making matters worse, is that Akane bears a secret past that might just be the key to making this return one the world may never forget. In all, the film is a goofy riff on what has long already been a J-horror staple, which is the "haunted" piece of technology or media. This is where either a video, song, or message via cel phone is an invitation to terror towards mostly young, often clueless technophiles. And with such a tired premise to rely on, the 3D element seemed to be the next logical hook.

You know your franchise is dead when guys like this are to blame.

And, boy. How more capitalistic and mercenary can this possibly be?

This is a piece so obvious. So bald-faced about its intentions, that it almost becomes charming in how it doesn't even bother with pretense as to where things leap out at the audience or why. There is even a 3D jump scare at the opening, that seems to have zero lead up, or context. And why? Because the makers simply do not care. And this lack of care seems to pop in at often strange, inopportune moments. Almost as if to imagine producers looking down upon the makers with a simple, "We paid you good money to give the people what they want. Give it to them! And do it now! Do you think we're making art here?" It knowingly is an unrepentant, prepackaged tourist trap ride, bad candy apples and all. And not all beneficial to what could have been. In fact, there was a genuine chance to finally have real fun with the mythos, and yet this is what we get when investors and filmmakers lack a sense of humor about endless repetition. This is a film that so badly wishes to be a good looking piece of pop silly, but is constantly undercut by a need to make quota. That's right. Where Nakata & Verbinski found themselves an unexpected amount of heart underneath all the creep, this is as manufactured and cold as franchise filmmaking ever gets. And it doesn't help that we are talking an Amityville 3D level of dopeyness in regards to everything on display here. Heck. The film doesn't even really bother with creating a compelling new video with which to introduce new viewers to a major selling point of the original. In so many ways, it seems dead set on being everything Ringu, but in name.

Also amusing, is how much the whole affair seems happy to advertise streaming services like Nico Nico Douga, as well as destroying iPhones. Like a Murakami prophecy, the commoditization level in Sadako could be considered borderline satirical if it were only so aware.

Or perhaps it is..

"Artificial? But everything in this world is artificial." - Possibly the most telling line in the film.

This is a film, where the makers know full well what manner of movie they are making, who their audience is, and yet have no base understanding of how to utilize the 3D in a story sense. And even after all that has been said, this is surprisingly watchable, if only in some morbid sense. It's just a shame that for a film that flirts with being a toss between a Dream Master, and even The New Blood, there's a general lack of either passion for the earlier films, or an ironic sense of fun to make it more than it is, which is a dumb, occasionally nice looking distraction. To think that original Ringu novelist, Koji Suzuki would have sold out his character to this degree with his S book, and help on the screenplay is just depressing.

It's a shame too, taking the teeth out of a character that once had a significant hold on so many of us years ago. Now she has been rendered about as scary as the Hamburglar.

Okay. I take that back. The Hamburglar still kind of scares the crap out of me.

But Sadako 3D, is the movie equivalent to a Happy Meal; Base, colorful, and perhaps capable of holding cement foundations together..

Apologies might just be in order.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

ELYSIUM (2013) Movie Findings

In the late 21st Century..

The earth has become a polluted, diseased catastrophe. And as a result, the rich and powerful have evacuated the planet to an orbital colony where their lives of prosperity and technologically enhanced mortality may continue.

As for the rest of humanity..

Neil Blomkamp's big budget return is an aggressive, heavy-handed and ultimately satisfying voyage into the nadir of western civilization. The very idea that the man who helmed the modestly funded dystopian underdog work, District 9, would go on to expand upon many of the same concepts with a significant sheen, and succeed as well as this remains pretty astonishing. Gone are the almost script-free bursts of madness, and unerring use of handheld. This is a grand peek into Blomkamp making grand entrance into the world of fiercely studio filmmaking, and coming out swinging, indie streak intact.

ELYSIUM tells the tale of Max, a robot factory worker with a spotty criminal past who finds himself forced to rethink what remains of his dreams when he is poisoned with radiation during a work accident. Having grown up an orphan who continuously dreamed of one day living amongst the dreamlike enchantments of that oh so glimmering goal in the sky. A man so willing to tow the line after doing several years in prison, this accident bolsters Max into returning to the shady underworld in hopes of getting himself a ticket to ELYSIUM, where illegals (IE- anyone not of opulent birthright) have often attempted to shuttle their way (to occasionally disastrous results). Now saddled with only five days left to live, a just recent encounter with his long lost best friend, and a dearth of options, Max is tasked with pulling a dangerous data heist with a small team. And when this inevitably goes horribly awry, leaving him on the run from a dangerous trio of vicious mercenary-types, a sequence of events unfolds that could very well affect both haves and have-nots. But not without a great deal of bloodshed first.

Even from that description, one can surmise that Blomkamp is in no way interested in subtleties. This would be an understatement. While this is in no way Tolstoy, there is a richness to his worlds that speak in ways that his pacing often does not. Which is a potent thing to consider as his vision of a planet-sized sprawl is both terrifying, and impressively tactile. His futuristic Los Angeles is a nightmare vision that could so easily be seen in many a neglected metropolitan area on Earth today. Streets and structures in tatters, often strewn with decay, garbage, and even overgrowth. This is how the world catches up with D9's Johannesburg shantytown. Life is an utter misery, and it is clearly understandable why someone like Max would resort to what he had in his past. But he so badly would rather not, and in attempting to live up to what remains of society, he finds himself back to square one - but with incentive this time. Meanwhile, the citizenry of ELYSIUM find themselves surrounded by sculpted beauty, both natural and constructed, in a symphony of human achievement. A place held in such esteem (often to the longing of many looking above from the Earth) , that those tasked with protecting it will take any measure at their disposal to to do so.  

Enter ELYSIUM's Secretary of Security Delacourt (Jodie Foster), a woman of stature and intelligence who sees herself as the colony's first and final line of defense. Unafraid to kill often innocent women and children to achieve her goals, Delacourt is even seen as problematic to the habitat's President Patel (Faran Tahir). Even as gears are in motion to reprimand Delacourt for her methods, she is soon harboring plans of her own in the name of maintaining what she sees as an ocean of necessity. And this also means keeping mangy private security specialists such as Agent C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley, in a truly menacing turn), an expert tracker, and an obvious psychopath. With allegiances splintered even amongst those in charge of maintaining the status quo, Delacourt represents the nasty side to this most glaring example of disparity.

And as Max's tale goes from woeful to desperate, the film swiftly careens into a familiar, yet no less impactful exploration into some very real problems plaguing our world today. Blomkamp having grown up around the sadness and desperation of economic disparity, sees no need to play matters down and simply applies the same no-holds-barred approach here as he did in 2009. He even goes so far as to explore the world of the deep underground, even to the grit and grime of pure homegrown resistance. When options for making a living are so miniscule, and the health levels are so toxic, technology becomes the next best way to have any manner of advantage in this torn up world.

Enter Spider(Wagner Moura)..Seemingly well connected smuggler, but more of a would be resistance leader and tech wizard extraordinaire. While his methods border on questionable, there is no doubt a great concern in him for the people he sees as deserving of better treatment (IE- everyone). And his proposed plan (to extract delicate security data from the mind of Max's former CEO, and until recently disgraced corporate go-between, John Carlyle, played by that always terrific "middle-man", William Fichnter) seems so insanely grand, that Max's initial instinct is to walk. (But considering the alternative..) As Spider, Wagner Moura creates a truly memorable hybrid of sleazy and deceptively undignified. A man of foggy morals, he is perhaps one of the film's biggest surprises as he finds himself further and further locked into the center of the conflict between the desperate and the seemingly immortal.

Having lived near East LA for a time now, there is a fascinating amount of real world texture to this film that feels both feral and quite at home. And despite the advanced tech we see throughout the film, again it is all treated as lived in and often left about for only those crazy enough to use them. It is to the point that so many in Max's world seem well broken into this mode of living that one could either live on their knees, or fight back in often the craziest ways possible. Blomkamp again proves that his particular world building voice is so studied, so stark, that it perhaps deserves its own moniker. The production design work by longtime collaborator, Phillip Ivey is singular at this point. Often interweaving the State Of The Art with the State Of The World, ELYSIUM is the ultimate expression of a continuous thread he has been playing with since his early days, producing uniquely strange pseudo-science fiction shorts. From Max's casual use of spanish, to the often worn out feel of the environs and the people who inhabit the earth, the film is unafraid to embrace reality as a vital part of the director's complete vision. As he has said before in interviews, this is not simple science fiction, this is what he truly sees in our world. And it is both hellish and beautiful in its brazen honesty. It is not a place I would ever wish to leave to the future..

But what does Blomkamp bring that is new to this souped up remix? Most egregiously, a potent fable about what we plan to do for future generations when all that is left, is to hide behind walls in fear of a "boogeyman" named reality. Summed up by both Delacourt's concerns as to whether or not President Patel has children of his own, to the revelation that Max's newly reunited childhood friend (Alice Braga) now has a child of her own with a serious health condition, much of the film is not obfuscating its intended messages. Also, he often lushly expands upon his fetishism for humanoid machinery, not to mention his love for put-upon characters, and the occasionally shocking moment of grue. There is even some biting satire involving the machinery the powerful have left upon the world in order to delegate what they may consider to be tasks that are "less than desirable". From POLICIA droids, to Max's parole officer, there is some truly dark humor at work here, and I'm still kind of shocked to see it in a 99 million dollar summer production.  (And, yes. Aware that the film had been pushed back from a 2012 release. Still. )

The performances here are almost uniformly terrific as Max's voyage allows us to meet more than a few memorable characters. Even as Copley's deeply disturbing, Kruger impresses with his zero compass and sheer audacity, it is Moura's Spider that really shines as a man who has long found himself embracing the so-called "bad guy" role, and now finds himself embroiled in something he never once dreamed was possible. A chance for true, across the board change. Braga is also terrific as the childhood friend who inspires the best in Max, even as the worst only seems to pile on. She receives some of the roughest physical and emotional ride throughout the film, and she handles it with an almost frightening amount of ease. And while Damon himself isn't really asked to reach too far as Max, there is just enough here for viewers to invest in. He's not an action hero type. None of this feels remotely ideal for him, and so much comes out as if by pure survival instinct, which he seems long attenuated to. If there is anywhere else where the film falters, its in that we never really get a full kaleidoscope of our lead, but the performance is complex enough to have some heft. 

In many ways, it is a blunt force evolution of the worlds once illuminated by directors such as Paul Verhoeven. And while we are talking trailblazing genre wizardry, if Blomkamp is this era's equivalent to a homegrown genius such as Sam Raimi, then ELYSIUM may just be his DARKMAN.  A refinement of all that has come before. (and yet no less venomous towards the inequities of the day) Like an expertly carved hint at the mindful wildness that is yet to come, Max's story is the only mildly distilled commercial echo to D9's raw battle cry.

In all, this is a lush, blunt, occasionally over edited, but well executed follow-up to what was easily one of my favorite films of 2009. When matters heat up in this piece, it hardly gives the audience room any to breathe. By the point the characters find themselves at a point of no return, and the situation has fallen into utter chaos, the seething emotional drive of the film is unmistakably Blomkamp. There is no question that the issues that pulsated through the heart of his previous feature, have in no way diminished. He is still ready to use genre as a weapon, and seems as brazen as ever to wield it in what is on its surface a down and dirty action tale. From immigration, to health care, to private security, this movie is not out to make friends, and we are meant to be participants. An often thrilling exercise in re-contextualizing our collective need for escapism is at the heart of ELYSIUM's grim, immediate vision, and more often than not, it's a greatest hits album with unrestrained bite.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Bay (2012) Movie Thoughts

Talk about one of the great career hard lefts of all time...

If you had told me that longtime lauded filmmaker, Barry Levinson would take the often youthful path of taking on the horror genre. Crazier still, that he would take on the verite horror movement to weave a tale of human borne ecological wrath! Enter the tale of Claridge, Maryland. Your classic bay side Americana town where the community's annual 4th of July festivities are about to be marred by a long gestating terror in the local waters. Through the eyes of numerous parties and individuals, the day's descent into environmental disaster is compiled into what is mostly an effective little fright machine with more than a few nasty things to say about a cam-centric America. One of the biggest surprises of The Bay, is in how it incorporates numerous forms of video media in the form of an underground expose of the events compiled in an almost television special format. In a sense, it takes the thrust of Josh Trank's entry, Chronicle, and hits matters on hyperdrive by mixing "found" footage from numerous sources, sprinkled with ominous information seeded from both the scientific and activist community, aware that something was amiss long before things went haywire.

We are given a primary face in the confessional video from a local university intern who was on site that morning. Young Donna Thompson's (Kether Donohue) words are our main thread as we weave in between her commenting on the compiled footage, as well as clips of herself quickly being thrust from would-be event reporter to the unwitting face of Claridge as it is turned inside out by an unspeakable invasion likely brought about by political neglect. Early on, she begins to take events on as if they are of a more domestic nature. But it isn't long before the symptoms of illness set up shop, and the bodies begin to pile up, rendering this beyond anything the town could ever hope to handle. With hindsight, her looking back at all that had transpired that day offers up something that the film's footage isn't so ready to do, which is to offer a faux documentary sheen over matters which is welcome in some respects, and unnecessary in others.

And from Donna's confessions, the film also grants us several more perspectives..From the local mayor who may very well be the most to blame for this fiasco, to a pair of oceanographic researchers who might have figured out the threat weeks before, and ultimately a couple of young professionals venturing on a boat to Claridge to see the wife's family-- with a newborn infant in tow. Also caught amongst the growing chaos, are the local law enforcement, a fifteen year old girl using iPhone's FaceTime app to detail her infection's progress, a lone doctor at the town's now infection- swarmed hospital, and even a bewildered team at the CDC. There is a great amount of effective interweaving of images, soundbites, and authenticity on hand as the problems star off on a level that never feels too far from realms of possibility. But when the film finally reveals the core "antagonists", it all does eventually become another horror piece. And while that might seem like cause for concern, Levinson does come up with just enough mood here to leave viewers with the squirms for days.

You'll never look the same way into a fish while cleaning one again..

The most chilling prospect that the film espouses is in regards to the increasingly wired world of cameras and internet video, where the greatest irony lies in just how much more distant we have become in reaction to all of it. If there are any places where contention comes up, this is it. And while one can indeed make the oft-made argument that a wired world, is a more divided, and often disconnected one, there comes a certain point where it all feels a bit forced for the sake of the theme. This all comes to a head of course, when we finally receive word from government officials which is meant to be the film's greatest condemnation. And it comes in such a "too little, too late" fashion, that one might almost be tempted to quote the mayor from Jaws, albeit after the fact. And yet despite all this, there are some pretty effectively eerie moments in the midsection that less involve what the cameras see, and rather what they do not, leaving our imaginations to run wild, which is always a plus. 

The film even takes several potshots at the camera-centric world to be far more interested in celebrity than in the overall right to be informed. Characters complain back and forth about how their latest take looks or sounds,  as if there is some hidden opportunity for notoriety despite the horrific events surrounding them. And even younger people are not spared as they are heard mentioning the possibility of becoming a Facebook celeb. Image is everything, and the events somehow become far less important. Even as the composure of many throughout is largely frayed into tatters, there is an undeniable venom being poised at the idea that the public is far better alert and informed due to greater amounts of bandwidth, and video capacity. The movie intentionally wields the language of contemporary reality television and net culture to display a world far more cut off than ever, and increasingly murky with each pass deeper into darkness. Awash in american flags, and a vision of Levinson's former bastions of nostalgia now rendered into labyrinths of isolated terror.

The only issue one can surmise from all this information, is that as a phoney guerilla-style PSA, Levinson's The Bay is a mostly hammy affair buoyed by some scares, but is often hampered by its own need to scare "with purpose". So when it employs all the methods at hand, including mostly silly mood score, the package as a whole feels like a kitchen sink reel, when it probably should have been a fly-on-the-wall one. In all, a unique turn for a filmmaker once known for revering a culture's past, now eager to plunge into its ever increasingly murky heart..

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Meatball Machine(2005) Movie Thoughts

You know, seems like a periodic inevitability. There never seems to be a season without running into at least one often micro-budgeted piece of contemporary tokusatsu schlock. And now, here we are. And this time around, I'm finally beginning to question the reasons beyond the economic feasibility factors in why such films have been so pervasive over the last decade plus. Because they certainly weren't quite so plentiful in those heady days before the Machine Girls and Sushi Typhoons of the world. And in the angsty in-betweens of the post-Evangelion/J-horror navel gazing, it seems perhaps telling that a great many of these productions seem more interested in the craft of the FX, and the veracity of the violence than in presenting a compelling world or story.

And then I watched Meatball Machine..

In all seriousness, I had considered avoiding this title for much longer. When in the days after Pacific Rim, it felt important just to watch something far more on the serious side, or just plain disposable. And I am fortunate to report that I have been more than successful in catching the latter.

Yudai Yamaguchi & Judai Yamamoto's Meatball Machine, is an early entry in this generations sprawl of said practical FX romps which explores the life of Yoji(Issei Takahashi) a lonely, possibly mentally troubled factory worker who's life is complicated by an invasion of seemingly alien parasites. Creatures with a nasty habit of attacking and soon after, inhabiting the bodies of human hosts in the name of visceral combat in VERY public places. All the while, we share Yoji's troubles as he is forced to endure what has become a staple in a great many of these films; a cast largely populated by either perverse scum, or hyperviolent sociopaths. (Yes. They are different in these cases.) His romantic life is nonexistent, until the girl who he fawns over near his job(Aoba Kawai) notices him. And it is only after one night where he is beaten severely by a transvestite, that things truly go haywire when he runs across a larvae form of the creatures, and inexplicably takes it home.

What ensues from here, can be telegraphed from oceans across as characters are soon possessed by the creatures, fights in abandoned streets become de rigueur, and secrets are revealed in an oblique, often hasty manner. And while the film (which is based on an earlier film by Yamamoto) does take a little time in displaying the life of the story's "antihero", it never finds itself in any proper groove to make the monster work worth anything beyond a rough demo. And while there are some fun nods to FX classics such as Carpenter's The Thing, there's very little here outside of a moment that so easily could have made the piece work on a memorable level.

Perhaps I should explain: It involves the inevitable meeting between Yoji, and Sachiko (his "troubled" intended), and it is a scene that must have been seen as the potential high point. What begins as a potentially tender moment, is one that ends in sheer horror. And it's a scene that begs to be rendered in a much more effective fashion. But the problems are multi-fold for this scene, and it's a terrible shame that it fails as egregiously as this does. Things are bad enough since the buildup to this scene is pedestrian at best, but when it finally comes to when the scene must come to a head, the emotional wanting of the scene goes into helplessly creepy territory, granting it no ability to hit potent speed. The scene so badly wants to go from tender to disturbed to outright nasty within a matter of brief minutes, and it is numbing at best. The very idea of attempting three very disparate tones in one scene without an understanding of basic human reaction makes for one frustratingly lost opportunity. And while one could argue that this one scene is perhaps the one with the most potential for thematic heft, it is dashed so harshly by its overall ineptitude. It merely ends up a vacuum, drawing one more into their seat, wondering when the next spec of dust will fly by over our eyes..

The saddest part about all of this, is that the creature effects here are effectively weird and repulsive. Heck even the sound design for the monsters is unique and troubling. And it's pretty clear that a great deal of enthusiasm went into the design and construction of them. One can even see a bit of Tsukamoto within this which is a plus. Even so, Meatball Machine doesn't find itself out of feeling as if the creatures and gags were the primary reason for this film's existence, and the story came almost dead last. As a result, this weirdly rough prototype of a piece has little to offer in the way of convincing those unfamiliar with the subgenre that it would be worth near ninety minutes of their time. And for those who are, it may only offer up sensations of the kind of existential nothingness that these films seem to be so concerned with.

Perhaps that's the point? 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

State Of The Kaijyu: A Settling Of Debris

Yes. It has been quiet on these pages. But this is not for lack of good reason. With some grand transitions coming together in the real, columns and reviews are only being put on the periphery for the time being. With school, and work changes ahead, there is even a feeling like the words being shared here and in various other locations might find themselves another home in time. A place where electricity, and the intertubes cannot reach. Analog space taking up residence in someone's book bag, or landfill. That's right. The Kaijyu is considering print.

So when considering ideas for book(s), I've been looking back at previous posts and writeups and centering on what binds much of this together and realizing that much of it has to do with intent, and the delivery. There is also a need from my words to consider how we watch stuff and contextualize it in the real world- even when the stories themselves seem so far removed from them. Despite all the fantastical weirdness that tends to come up around here, it has always been in the name of finding some particle of human truth to it, and perhaps this is where my focus will lie.

On the watching front, it has been mostly sampling movies as well as the latest anime, and while nothing is entrancing me the way Flowers Of Evil did, there are some decent offerings that give me mild hope. I'm even willing to admit here to having great respect and admiration for Kyoto Animation for finally producing Free!, which is equal opportunity sex positivity at its best. Been so long since we have seen something this overt, and unabashedly fun for the guy-oggling set.

Has been admittedly rough to summon up the energy to watch anything remotely dense as time is sparse. And after Pacific Rim succeeded for me on a multitude of personal levels, it has been tricky to think of anything to counter such a thing but some of my favorite anime and fantasy films. It's especially so when one has to come to terms with the fact that this just doesn't happen that often. There are only so few milestones out there, and the thought that the only thing one can do to sustain a certain vibe is to go back rather than explore further can be a little disappointing. This is where the spirit of the obscure find can be the ultimate expedition worth embarking on. But alas, the Mom & Pop video store is all but an ancient memory now, and sites like Netflix can only do so much. So what to do?

I'm sure solutions are forthcoming to those willing to look. And I'm certain there are so many cool, weird, telling titles out there that can fuel an extended chapter or two. But for now, it's largely about going back into the well, along with some more personal thoughts on animated/filmed media, and what it is about it that makes it so impactful for so many of us. I just know that in my case, it is less these days about escape, and more a means of figuring out what it is that we most want at any given time, no matter how perverse, or bizarre.

So while life and work is happening, the monster mind is still blazing away with the blowtorch. And will find the time to post and research for the larger projects. It's all falling action these days, and I'm excited to see how all of this is navigated from hilltop to bottom.

Like V.Zero promised several years ago, this is all an "eternal work in progress", so thanks for sticking it out with me.

Overdrive is almost here.