Archive for February, 2014

big bad wolves (2013)

Posted: February 26, 2014 in Uncategorized
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The brutal murder of a child leads her father and an ex-cop to take extreme measures as they try to draw a confession from the sole suspect.

The latest film from the Israeli makers of “Kelavet” Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, “Big Bad Wolves” positions itself as a modern fairy tale, from the knowing name to the stylised look and feel. The world of the film is strangely empty and tranquil, at odds with the violence and pain at it’s heart; the camera creeping delicately through painstakingly composed shots, stalking it’s characters like the predators of the title.

This is not a tale of princesses or little pigs, but those who prey on them, and if there is a moral in this fable, it lies in an undercurrent of criticism toward Israeli policy on Palestine. The main players are coldly militarised from conscription and all complicit to some extent in the horrors that unfold, while the effectiveness of extreme responses to crimes, either real or perceived, is called into doubt repeatedly. The sole Arab character is a striking counterpoint to the mania of the rest of the cast, meandering serenely on horseback, a potential prince charming who never gets to ride to the rescue.

This is a fairy tale set in the real world, with a subject matter that couldn’t possibly be any darker. There can be no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow these characters ride and ultimately the film is remorselessly bleak. Despite this, much of the enjoyment to be found on the journey comes from the pitch black humour. Great one-liners expertly undercut the tension that builds, and at times the film takes on a surreal, quirky feel, even occasionally slipping into the trappings of farce amid it’s brutality.

The sudden intrusion of mundane normality provokes genuine gut laughter; a comic reminder that evil isn’t the domain of imaginary monsters but real people with silly ringtones, bantering about age, cholesterol and how much burnt human flesh smells like a barbecue.

As the suspect, Rotem Keinan has the most pivotal role, with the central mystery of the film, and much of it’s effectiveness, hinging on his performance. his Dror is sympathetic and at times almost sweet, laced with a determined creepiness that occasionally bubbles to the surface. It is a testament to his subtle and ambiguous turn that you are kept guessing about his guilt right to the end.

The remainder of the small cast are equally strong. Tzahi Grad is wonderfully dry and brusque as the father of the murdered girl, while Lior Ashkenazi is immensely likeable as the cop Micki, finding a nice balance between thuggery and hangdog goofiness.

“Big Bad Wolves” is a well made and unique take on the torture-porn horror movies that have become so pervasive in recent years. It is rare that a films provokes laughter, revulsion and contemplation in equal measure, but Keshales and Papushado pull off this difficult task with real aplomb. However, despite the positives, many may find it difficult to reconcile the severe clash between it’s heavy subject matter and it’s often light-hearted style.

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Jon is a modern day lothario, hopping clubs and bedding women with such startling frequency that his friends have nicknamed him “Don Jon”. However, this string of meaningless sexual encounters leaves him emotionally malnourished, a vacuum he fills with copious amounts of internet porn.

“Don Jon” is the incredibly assured writing and directing debut of it’s leading man, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. An astute parable for our time, the film casts a probing gaze over an era where true human connection has been lost as people become ever more dependent on outside stimuli to fulfil emotional needs.

While his main character is essentially addicted to pornography, that is not the sole target, if it is a target at all. Sports, smart phones and romance movies are other characters equally damaging means of escape, replacing genuine human contact and creating unrealistic expectations that reality can never live up to.

Holding a mirror up to the way society and the media enforce gender stereotypes, we see male characters fed a diet of macho sports and bikini clad “10s”, while Hollywood sells women images of idealised masculinity; men who are worshipping, providing and servile. A children’s party hammers the message home, full of over-excited little girls dressed as princesses, while the sole boy, a young baby not yet old enough to walk, has already been tacitly handed his role in life, forced into a pair of workmanlike denim dungarees.

The film is full of recurring motifs, establishing a stylish cinematic shorthand for Jon’s regimented lifestyle, repeatedly used and then undercut to great comedic and dramatic effect. Initially, the movie has a slick feel; quick cuts interspersed with long flowing scenes, recalling the style of a hollywood rom-com, particularly in one long take that leads to a romantic kiss outside a cinema.

Late on, the film subtly adopts the trappings of an indie drama, with more measured, naturalistic scenes, handheld shaky-cam and the replacement of the early bold colour palette with more muted, earthy tones, reflecting the more emotional timbre.

If there is a criticism, it is that the movie does seem to lose steam because of these choices. Although the later scenes are very well done and thematically necessary, the earlier sections are so much fun that, when the film does take it’s inevitable dramatic turn, it is in some ways disappointing by comparison.

A character study like this lives or dies by it’s lead performance, and Gordon-Levitt completes his cinematic chimera with an excellent turn. Playing completely against type as a buffed up Jersey Shore cartoon, he not only nails it on a superficial level but also gives his character a surprising depth and likability, strongly reminiscent of Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever”.

The supporting cast are given less to work with, but do well with their one-note characters. Tony Danza and Glenne Headly have nice cameos as Jon’s parents, with Danza particularly fun as a sports-crazy caricature of masculinity, unable to let the television remote out of his grasp. Scarlett Johanson is well cast as the girl who seems to capture Jon’s heart, while the excellent Julianne Moore expertly fills out her underwritten, yet pivotal, role.

While it does have minor flaws, “Don Jon” is clever, confidently executed, well-acted and funny. Gordon-Levitt has crafted a small, personal tale with real heart, genuine style and an interesting message; a mature film that belies his novice status as writer and director.

odd thomas (2013)

Posted: February 17, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Odd Thomas is a short order cook in the small town of Pico Mundo harbouring a dark secret: he can see dead people. He uses his psychic gift to track down murderers, until one day he stumbles upon clues that lead him to believe that a massacre is being planned. But can he put the pieces of the puzzle together in time to prevent it?

“Odd Thomas” is a weird hybrid of horror, teen comedy and Michael Bay-esque action-fest from “The Mummy” director Stephen Sommers, based on a novel by Dean R Koontz. It tries to be quirky, funny and scary but fails at all three, ending up dumb and overblown, as if someone lobotomised “The Sixth Sense” and force-fed it steroids until it had a stroke.

Rising star Anton Yelcin is passable in the lead, possessing a certain charisma that carries him through his under-developed role. He wrings laughs out of a few of his better lines and does quite well in the action scenes, although having messed-up hair and frowning while everyone calls him quirky is not really a substitute for having an actual character. He is lumbered with constant stilted expository dialogue, mostly delivered through a trite narration, as the film does it’s best to get right down to business without bothering too much with trifling details like character development or connecting with the audience.

This is a movie that has tried to paint the story in as few brushstrokes as possible, with constant flashbacks filling in any blanks left by the continuous voiceover, leaving much of the plot feeling lazily tacked on. Damningly for a film centred around unravelling a mystery, the viewer is always one step ahead of the protagonists and anyone who has seen an episode of Scooby-Doo will have the whole thing worked out a third of the way through.

Yelcin aside, the cast are laughably poor and largely forgettable; a collection of preening eye-candy in low-cut tops and charisma-free ken-dolls with the acting chops of balsa wood.

Worst of the bunch is Addison Timlin as the ridiculously named, and incredibly annoying, damsel-in-distress Stormy Llewellyn. Her performance is completely devoid of passion or humanity as she delivers her lines with the emotional range and speech pattern of a “Speak & Spell”. She is not helped by being given some of the worst dialogue ever spoken in a major motion picture, ranging from the bizarre (“You know why i call you pooh bear…because your head is full of stuffing”) to the strangely offensive (“I’m a woman, we all have issues, it’s what keeps us interesting and you men interested”) and sometimes just plain nonsense (“You have to learn to listen with more than just your ears”).

Sommers’ star from the “Mummy” franchise, Arnold Vosloo, has a brief cameo that actually works extremely well as a bizarre comedic aside. The usually reliable Patton Oswalt also pitches up, appearing incredibly out of place doing a joke free version of his usual schtick, as if he wandered on to the wrong set, was forced into an ill-fitting costume and pushed in front of the camera.

Willem Defoe is handed a slightly more substantial role as the chief of police who aids Odd in his crusade, with a running gag about interruptions to his “date night” one of the few comedic elements that consistently hits home. He may be on cruise control but Defoe is always a welcome presence, although a late “emotional” scene shows that even an actor of his caliber wasn’t immune to the bad-acting bug that was going around the set.

While the film is relatively stylish in look, with lots of flashy camerawork and unusual angles, it all lacks originality, being soullessly derivative of far better, more interesting movies. Even worse, there seems to have been a real absence of care in the making of this film, and the only element more telegraphed than the numerous twists are the anodyne jump-scares, defeating the point of having either. The lackadaisical attitude of the makers is summed up by a scene where an old couple walk past our heroes in a diner and in the very next shot we see the same couple walking in through the entrance, as if the audience wouldn’t notice or care about the time travelling geriatrics.

“Odd Thomas” has an interesting premise, fast pace and is relatively fun, none of which manage to disguise how slipshod the whole affair ended up being. The intent was clearly to make a version of Peter Jackson’s “The Frighteners” that would be accessible to teenagers, but the finished product more closely resembles “Donnie Darko” for the intellectually disabled.

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With the Yakuza running rampant in Los Angeles, “Samurai Cop” Joe Marshall is brought in from San Diego to deal with their threat.

“Samurai Cop” is a 1989 thriller from writer/director Amir Shervan, an Iranian millionaire who, based on having cranked out a few black and white shorts for the Iranian Ministry of Culture in the late 70s, reckoned that making action blockbusters would be a piece of cake, so he moved to the USA and had a crack. The end result is every bit as bizarre as you would expect.

The first point of warning is; don’t be fooled by the title. Despite this film claiming to be about a samurai, this in no way resembles a martial arts film. The majority of the fight scenes are poorly choreographed fist fights or choppily edited gun battles where everyone seems to be in a completely different location. Extras are offed in hilarious fashion, convulsing half-heartedly and holding the dried ketchup stains on their shirts as they are riddled with invisible bullets.

The whole film has been put together in completely random manner with scant regard for any film-making convention. A brutal torture scene suddenly cuts to our beefcake hero wearing nothing but overly tight speedos and walking into a room holding a cake singing “Happy Birthday” before briefly seeming to forget the name of the woman he’s singing it to. Then they have sex, one of the many completely gratuitous sex scenes that litter the movie.

Indeed, if you ever wanted to see naked women lying on a bed and looking extremely uncomfortable while being fondled by freakish men in their underwear, then this is the movie you have been waiting for. To make these scenes even more awkward they consistently arrive from nowhere, just like everything in the film. One minute you are watching a massive, poorly executed gun fight and suddenly you’re slap bang in the middle of a graceless, slobbering sex scene.

To give you an idea of how strange this movie is, there is a whole scene with a mounted lion head in the background, except, evidently, they couldn’t afford the genuine article so they cut the head off a large cuddly toy and stuck it on the wall. Another scene plays out with the actors partially obscured by a tiny sculpture in a bafflingly clumsy attempt at Hitchcockian artiness.

The Samurai Cop of the title is former carpenter and future bodyguard for Sylvester Stallone, Matt Hannon, who got the role despite a complete lack of acting skills or fighting skills or any skills that might be useful in the making of a movie. His main selling points appear to have been his impressive build, incredible hair and a willingness to spend a good portion of the movie walking around in nothing but an uncomfortably small pair of budgie smugglers. He zones out during long takes, mis-delivers lines (“Now, i’m telling these son of a bitches”) and generally looks incredibly uncomfortable. Still, that hair is awesome and he has a goofy charm that makes his character a lot of fun; the film wouldn’t be the same without this big hulking mass threatening bad guys and macking hilariously on every lady in sight.

Hannon is in good company, as it seems the casting criteria for the film was walking up to people in the street and asking them “Do you want to be in a movie?” with anyone who said “yes” getting the gig.

The “name star” Shervan got to appear is genre stalwart Robert Z’dar, possessor of the most alarming looking chin in all of show business. Amusingly, he is playing a Japanese character, despite looking in no way Japanese. This was solved by having him grow a beard, meaning that although he didn’t look Japanese, or sound Japanese, he did have a beard. It’s genius really.

The film opens with a soundtrack that seems to have been composed on a Nintendo Entertainment System, which is, amazingly, the musical highpoint. At times if feels as if the composer simply pressed the demo button on his Yamaha (“or Omaha or whatever his face’s name is”) keyboard and passed out drunk. It was then left to his slightly less wasted drinking buddy, who due to a tragic accident had been left with bowling-balls for hands, to fill in the gaps. The same music plays over sex scenes and fight scenes, sudden musical flares accompany dramatic moments like, er, someone standing up and, in one hilarious moment, an actor seems to miss their cue by a few seconds, leaving Billy Bowling-Ball-Hands hitting the same note over and over again until they finally appear in shot.

The dialogue is probably best described as “exactly how a 60 year old Iranian with a limited grasp of English would think Americans talk”, although that assumes that any of this dialogue was ever written down at all. There is a woman whose sole job is to say “Here comes the boss” just before her boss arrives, while the flirting in this movie is truly epic. In reply to being told to “Keep it up” our hero suavely remarks “Oh, it’s up and ready, you just keep it warm”. Unbelievably, that is about as subtle as it gets in this film.

The attempts at comedy are mostly based around extreme racial stereotypes. The “witty” banter between the Samurai Cop and his black partner is a great example of this, full of references to “black asses” and his “black gift”. The high (or low, depending on how you look at it) point is a brief cameo from an incredibly camp Costa Rican waiter whose slim grasp of English is mined for many “laughs”, a malodorous scene guaranteed to leave your jaw slackened in awe at the astonishing lack of taste.

“Samurai Cop” is inept in every conceivable department, from acting and writing to direction and music; literally nothing works. It is also hilarious in the most bizarre way, a hideous car crash where everyone involved was driving a clown car and bleeding custard. For those who take pleasure in the depths cinema can plumb, this is a must watch, a genuine trash cinema masterpiece that has to be seen to be believed.

black dynamite (2009)

Posted: February 11, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Black Dynamite is a Vietnam war veteran, ex-CIA agent and the baddest mutha on the planet. When his younger brother is gunned down by a shady Mr. Big, he vows to clean up the streets and find the killers, no matter what the cost.

“Black Dynamite” is a 2009 spoof of 70s blaxploitation cinema that is so expertly crafted and carefully realised that it could easily pass as a genuine forgotten classic. The film stock is grainy and washed out while the direction is intentionally flat; a camera struggling to keep up in the small boxy rooms that pass for sets, with the occasional fit of ludicrously low-fi and outdated camera trickery adding to the authentic feel.

The soundtrack (courtesy of hip-hop producer Adrian Younge) adds to the faithful period ambience, as dark basslines, jazzy flutes and funky guitars float through scenes like cigarette smoke filling a dive bar, while recurring motifs bookend moments of significance in a gloriously unsubtle fashion. The affection of all involved is obvious; this is less a mocking pastiche and more a “warts and all” love letter to a long neglected and much derided genre.

Michael Jai White, who also co-wrote the film, absolutely nails the lead role, perfect in every aspect from his look to his attitude. He kicks ass, growls one liners and dispenses street wisdom with equal panache in a thunderous gut-punch of a comedic performance. It is quite simply a wonderful display of knowing ham acting couched in effortless cool and barbaric badassery. There is also real depth to his “performance within a performance”, expertly conveying the air of a man who believes himself far better than his low-rent surroundings. His eyes angrily dart to a boom mic that has dipped into shot and he briefly glares at the director when a supporting player starts reading out his stage directions (“Sarcastically i’m in charge”). There is so much fun to be had just watching him and enjoying the comedic nuances that the film almost deserves a second watch to do just that.

Although white is outstanding, this is a film where everyone embraced the concept and all of the cast are absolutely pitch perfect in their delivery. Actors in small roles deliver stilted performances that would have the director yelling cut on a porn set, while slightly bigger roles expertly recall the over-the-top jive talking and contextually inappropriate wannabe preaching of so many blaxploitation actors.

The writing is also spot-on, perfectly sending up the conventions of blaxploitation cinema. The main revenge plot is deliciously hokey and contrived while the twists are knowingly outlandish and ridiculous. Much of the dialogue is a precise approximation of 70s movie jive talk cranked all the way up to 11 (“I said split, shake the scene you turkeys”) while the completely nonsensical grand speeches characters occasionally lurch into perfectly skewer the half baked cod-philosophising that trash cinema all too often descends into. There is still room for more conventional humour amid the lampoon, with plenty of fun visual gags and precise wordplay among the nonstop barrage of jokes, delivering far more hits than misses.

At first glance “Black Dynamite” seems like an unsustainable idea for a feature film, but thanks to clever writing and perfect execution it never loses steam, wringing every last ounce of potential from it’s one-joke premise. This is a film chock full of quotable lines and memorable moments, a perfect confection crafted with love and care that deserves to be cherished by it’s audience as much as it clearly was by those who made it.