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There's a fine line between stupid and clever
4 November 2014
The mockumentary is by this point a well-established genre, but today's faux-docs (often in the form of TV series like The Office) can often seem like ordinary scripted comedy where the characters occasionally talks to the camera. This is Spinal Tap, the film that really popularized the sub-genre, goes to great lengths to mimic and parody the documentary form: quick cuts, nonsensical asides, an awkward director occasionally stumbling on camera, no real narrative direction until the final act, and a lot of ugly people struggling to say something meaningful.

Of course, the main thing that makes This is Spinal Tap a classic is that it's incredibly funny. The good-natured but dim musicians of the titular band are less a parody of rock stars than an absurd band of characters thrust into semi-fame. The band's fictional history, complete with flower-child flashbacks and a long line of dead drummers, is the richest vein of comedy. A few of the movie's gags have been overexposed through endless repetition (call it Monty Python syndrome), but there's a lot of clever comedy that still resonates. Reiner and screenwriter Christopher Guest are capable of both broad, goofy comedy and understated bits that only the attentive will catch.

There are probably some points on which you could critique This is Spinal Tap -- the characters are hard to distinguish until about halfway through, and there is the above-mentioned lack of narrative -- but the whole picture is so shaggily charming that it's hard not to smile and laugh along. If you haven't seen this, it may be the best use of 80 minutes of your time around.
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Nick Cave is a pretty cool guy
7 October 2014
The world abounds with concert films and other documentaries with no greater ambition than following a famous person around for a while. These films are usually easy to put in the "superfans only" category. But maybe that wouldn't be the case if they were more like 20, 000 Days on Earth. All I can say is that, as someone who has one Nick Cave album but no vast devotion to the guy, I was entertained throughout.

Part of this is simply the beauty of the images -- the directors make even the most mundane scene stun on the screen. The film takes place across one mostly ordinary day in Nick Cave's life, purportedly the 20000th, and much of the runtime is taken up by fascinating conversations Cave has with friends and collaborators. There are a lot of stagey scenes that don't hide their constructedness, such as a filmed therapy session, or a meta- cinematic moment where at the behest of the film's producers Cage goes through old pictures that will soon become part of the opening montage. And then there is the obligatory concert footage, shot in a dynamic fashion that manages to pick up all of Cave's subtle interactions with the front row and the looks of desperate adoration on the audience's faces.

All of this would be for naught if Cave wasn't a fascinating subject. He plays the brooding poet here, providing ominous narration throughout the film, but there are also humanizing scenes where he watches TV with his sons or grumpily bosses around a children's choir (one of the more surreal moments here). It may be more charisma than intellect, but damn if I couldn't listen to Nick Cave talk for days. For all the directorial skill brought to 20, 000 Days on Earth, its greatest virtue may be in simply allowing us to experience two hours of Cave.
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Hatchet (2006)
Stay out of the swamp
7 September 2014
Before Sharknado, before Sharktopus, and in fact not involving a shark at all, there was Hatchet. If you can't make a good movie, the thinking goes, why not make an intentionally bad one and hope that camp value carries you to cult classic status? Sometimes this works, but Hatchet is mostly a misfire.

The movie is a horror-comedy, more in the Scary Movie vein than the Edgar Wright one. As such, we have about forty minutes of painfully unfunny and mean-spirited humour before the killing starts, with a lot of racial and sexist stereotypes. The soft-porn star with delusions of grandeur is probably the best character, which isn't saying much. Most of the characters' actions are inexplicable even once you realize they're all dumb as a rock. It's not pretty.

When the blood starts flowing (and spraying, and gushing), Hatchet edges closer to being watchable. There's a lot of enjoyably over-the- top gore, and a few moments of black humour that actually work (including the final stinger). If Green had played the material straight, this wouldn't have been a great movie, but it might have been an inoffensive one. In the end, though, it's hard to care whether these scatological doodles of people will survive. Even horror nuts will probably come away from Hatchet disappointed.
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Psycho (1960)
Man, this is the weirdest adaptation of A Rose For Emily I've ever seen
31 August 2014
A woman with a secret meets a man working at an out-of-the-way motel. He is neurotic but charming, and the two of them decide to eat dinner together. She learns about his problems getting out from under his domineering mother, and encourages him to stand up for himself. And then he stabs her to death.

Psycho works so well not because it is gory or innately terrifying but because it uses the familiar tropes of romantic comedy to set up a string of horrific murders. It suggests that the ordinary people we like or even feel sorry for are just as dangerous as the ones we instinctively fear. Norman Bates' twisted psyche ties together love, violence, and the Oedipal complex -- Hitchcock's favourite themes, perhaps never realized so well.

I've always been something of a Hitchcock skeptic, and Psycho contains its share of the overcomplication and affectedness that often dogs his work. There's a lot of glut here -- the whole plot line of Marian stealing the money, the tedious investigation sequence after the first murder, and the clumsy exposition that puts everything in a neat little box at the end. If Psycho is great, it's not because of Hitchcock but because of Anthony Perkins, who makes Norman Bates somehow pitiable and terrifying at the same time. The scenes he shares with Janet Leigh are captivating, and more than make up for the less memorable material surrounding them.

Psycho may not live up to its reputation, but it's still well worth a look. You won't get a more pure exhibition of Hitchcock's obsessions than this, and you're not likely to see a better performance anytime soon.
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Walkabout (1971)
A delirious rumination o nature and sexuality
19 August 2014
Walkabout takes a premise that brims with condescending racism and Oscar-bait melodrama: a pair of white Australians are lost in the wilderness, but saved by a silent and resourceful Aboriginal, who teaches them the ways of nature and leads the young woman to a sexual awakening. It doesn't so much escape from these trappings as sweep them aside by making the whole narrative elliptical and bizarre, more reminiscent of a heat-drenched dream than a realist narrative.

Roeg's visual gifts are the main attraction here, from the dissonantly- edited montages to the brutal close-ups of natural life. Walkabout is not a film that asks you to sit back and admire the beauty of a natural vista, but rather one that rubs your nose in the violent struggle for survival that is the wilderness. Jenny Agutter manages to wrench the viewer's attention away from the bizarre visuals, with both her beauty and her strangely detached air. David Guilpilil's Aborigine does certainly fall into the "noble savage" archetype, but there are some moments in the film which suggest that this too is an illusion.

Walkabout is a film that at first seems instantly dated, but then suddenly becomes too strange to fit in comfortably with any time period or movement. For fans of experimental cinema, this is a must-see.
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Deliverance (1972)
Squeal like a pig, etc, etc.
11 August 2014
Deliverance is one of those movies that's defined by one scene (you probably know the one) in a way that really doesn't do justice to the film as a whole. Its central thematic concern is the changing relationship between the urban American and the wilderness. Deliverance smartly makes its protagonists Southern urbanites to mitigate the kind of cultural biases that a story about murderous hillbillies calls up, although it's still not exactly a positive portrayal of the Appalachians community. As much as our quartet of hikers profess a love of nature, their relationship with the interior is profoundly antagonistic, a mixture of antagonism and a desire to conquest. Their interaction with the locals is a synecdoche of the larger geological transformation hanging over the whole film: the destruction of a complex wilderness to meet the water needs of growing cities.

What's so refreshing about Deliverance is that it flatters absolutely no one. Burt Reynolds plays a primitivist alpha male, a role he would spend the next couple decades misinterpreting, and while his steely nihilism is attractive at first he is ultimately rendered useless. Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox are buffoons of entirely different stripes. Jon Voight plays a civilized man whose descent into savagery is never made heroic. Despite being famous for a scene of violence, Deliverance never revels in its depravity in the same way that some of its contemporaries do. These characters have some surprisingly philosophical debates, debates that are ultimately rendered meaningless as they scramble for pure survival. And as for the much-vaunted interior, it's represented by a pair of rapacious monsters who are just as intent on reducing people to animals as the city-dwellers are.

John Boorman is a competent director but has trouble livening up the scenes that take place outside of the main action. The opening dueling banjos scene is brilliant, and basically sums up the entire film, but the initial rafting and camping is a slog and the epilogue stretches on too long. The lack of strong direction stops Deliverance from really being among the elite of the New Hollywood films, but it's a respectable entry into that tradition nevertheless. In terms of both its politics and its art, Deliverance captures a moment in time that was already vanishing, and does so in vivid and unforgettable fashion.
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House (1977)
The fact that this was a commercial success tells you everything you need to know about Japan
7 August 2014
House is one of the few movies, alongside the films of Jodorowsky, that are absolutely as weird as their reputation suggests. Ostensibly a horror film, House is a jumbled mixture of experimental art project, schoolgirl exploitation, absurdist comedy, and slasher flick. So many weird visual effects and choices pile up on screen until the movie becomes both impossible to take seriously and absolutely beautiful.

The plot, which is actually fairly easy to follow, sends a group of seven easily-stereotyped teenage girls to an old woman's haunted house in the countryside, which of course begins to kill them off one by one. It takes a while to get to the horror elements, with the first half hour or so being an equally bizarre take on a fluffy schoolgirls-on-holiday story. Even once the bodies start dropping, nothing that happens is really frightening so much as it is strange and uncomfortable. House also gets credit for having an essentially all-female cast (eat your heart out, The Descent).

Subtextually, this one is all about relationships among girls and women and the need to move to gradually more mature ones. The character development is all about the lead girl accepting her new stepmother, which could be really boring. But the relationships are all rendered in a distinctly sapphic, and hence incestuous, way. So a wrote lesson about family togetherness becomes something much stranger and more sinister.

I feel like I've used some variation of "strange" too many times in this review, but that's just what House does to people. There's no way to really describe it without watching it. It may or may not be your cup of tea, but I guarantee that you won't have seen anything like it before.
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All the history of life has lead up to Sean Penn staring moodily into space
24 July 2014
First things first: The Tree of Life is devastatingly beautiful, with the cinematography making the film's natural landscapes and beautiful actors truly shine. This in itself makes the film watchable, and perhaps even worth watching. But for me good movies aren't just about pretty images, but about ideas, and while The Tree of Life certainly has ideas, they aren't quite as deep as Terence Malick probably thinks they are.

Although there are flashes backwards and forwards, the bulk of this film deals with a young boy, Jack, coming of age in 1950s suburban Waco, Texas. From the start, everything is presented idyllically, with endless scenes of a smiling Jessica Chastain frolicking in the grass with her young boy. Was anyone's childhood actually like this? Later, when things start going terribly wrong, the film is similarly unconvincing. This is a film that means to say a lot about human development, but it completely fails to capture the everyday triumphs, tragedies and tedium that defines childhood as well as adult life. This isn't a realist film, but its insistence on hyperbole mutes the effectiveness of any point that could be made.

The Tree of Life's central conflict is Jack being pulled between the influence of his different family members, who are all gendered archetypes: the hard-but-secretly-loving father, the naively-kind mother, the traumatically dead brother. Malick wants to tell a story about family breakdown that serves as a metaphor for essential questions about how to live, but the problem is that this is a story and a message that we've heard many times before. In addition to the stereotypical characters, the thematic contrast between peaceful benevolence and hard- nosed realism is one that echoes the same themes of every warmongering political speech of the last century, themes that ignore that peace is usually the most truly difficult and most truly pragmatic choice. (The Waco setting and the father's military job makes a political reading easy to grasp.) Malick reaches for the universal, but comes back with the generic.

The Tree of Life has its pleasures: the gorgeous cinematography mentioned above, as well as the great performances by Pitt and especially Chastain, imbuing stock characters with real life. At times, particularly in the second half, the film can be gripping in a queasy sort of way. But considering its ambitious, as well as its massive hype, I couldn't help but come away disappointed.
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Her (2013)
Let's be honest: who isn't in love with their computer?
12 July 2014
From the trailer, I expected her to be a twee beta-male romance movie that would also act as a marker of our contemporary self-satisfied liberal consumerism. And it is all those things, but somehow it manages to be pretty good as well.

Her is the story of a lonely guy, played by a hipster-mustachioed Joaquin Phoenix, who falls in love with his artificially-intelligent operating system. From the opening scene, set in a business that writes "genuine hand-written letters" for other people, Her raises the question of how possible it is to form genuine human connections in a world full of artificial sentiment and consumable emotion? Rather than picturing the dystopia as a world of emotionless logic a la Orwell and Huxley, Spike Jonze imagines it as a world full of hollow feeling. In this setting, why not fall in love with your computer?

Her is a movie that's all about contemporary technology, but manages to avoid either condemning or praising it. Technology in Her is something that can replace human relationships, but something that can also enhance them and lead to new modes of being. The ending suggests that the world we are heading towards may be impossible to even comprehend using our contemporary modes of thought, let alone judge. Maybe our emotional attachments, the overwhelming life narratives we form out of primal lusts and similarly base emotion, are just a primitive phase in human evolution. These are questions that the film raises, but never offers a real solution to.

With that said, the genre of transformative romance is perhaps not the best metaphor for the coming technological singularity. This is one of those movies where women are defined entirely through their relationship with the male protagonist, and reflect little more than his own potential and development. As some critics have noted, it's a bit like 500 Days of Summer if Zooey Deschanal was an operating system. As such, the actual conversations and interactions between Theodore and Samantha are fairly dull.

When Her film gets away from its romantic framework, it becomes a lot more interesting -- perhaps even great. It reminded me frequently of Synecdoche, New York, with its shifts between surreal humour and broad but powerful philosophical inquiry. Her is also visually beautiful, and Jonze has done a great job imagining a future in which the aesthetics of Apple and Google have taken over the world. It's the kind of science- fiction which feels neither ridiculous nor generic, and for that Her deserves attention despite its flaws.
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The Killer (1989)
Nothing witty here... this one is just great
10 July 2014
From the plot outline and the film's immediate aesthetics, you could be forgiven for thinking The Killer is just another 80s cop thriller. But there's something about the film that both perfects and transcends that genre -- while it hits all the beats of a thriller, there's a kind of mournful and contemplative tone that makes it impossible to really be thrilled by the violence that explodes across the screen. Instead of taking pains to guide the viewer through the plot, Woo lets most of the details and character motivations take place unnoticed in the background, creating a sense of unmoored and directionless violence enveloping the world. This is especially true of the daring and unforgettable opening scene. The heroes, if they can be called that, are full of remorse and regret, but are unable to do anything but stumble forward bleary-eyed into another shootout.

And yet it's also impossible not to be thrilled by the action. I've always been somewhat bored by gunfights in movies, especially when compared to the bodily performance of a martial arts showdown or the spectacle of a sci-fi battle. But Woo's gunplay is just as kinetic and brilliant as it's famous for, playing fast and loose with probability and physics in order to create a breathtaking ballet of violence. He also shows a hand for comedy at unexpected moments. So The Killer has its aesthetic pleasures, which are necessarily guilty ones.

This is the tension that most action films struggle through -- our reluctance to endorse violence and our inner desire to see it play out. Usually you just get mass carnage tacked onto a superficial anti- violence message, or incoherent speeches about "fighting for peace". But Woo presents the problem for us in full -- the beauty of violence, the horror, and the inescapability. It's ultimately a pessimistic message, and not one I entirely agree with, but in the world Woo sketches it's more undeniable than gravity.
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Cold, like a turkey
8 July 2014
After the cancellation of Twin Peaks, there were a lot of questions left unresolved and the series's general meaning was unclear. The fans that had remained through the show's second-season decline doubtlessly wanted a conclusion to the show's many narrative strands. A feature film could have provided a sense of closure, as with future cult TV shows Firefly and Veronica Mars. But of course, David Lynch has never been one to give people what they want.

Fire Walk with Me is a prequel, and one that doesn't really provide any information about Laura Palmer's death that isn't revealed in the first half of the TV series. As such, it's inessential even for fans of the show, and at times can feel like a rehash of old material (especially in the first half hour, another quirky detective investigating another murdered young girl).

So why watch Fire Walk With Me? Well, there are some fun appearances by the likes of David Bowie, Kiefer Sutherland and Harry Dean Stanton. But more importantly, the film pares down the supernatural tangents and weird townspeople that littered the TV series. Those things had their value, but they eventually made the murder of Laura Palmer a half- forgotten conceit. As in so many murder mysteries, the actual murder victim becomes inessential. In Fire Walk With Me, that violence takes centre stage. We see Laura Palmer's world, a world of constant sexual violence and her futile attempts to cope by owning the depravity. It's Lynch at his bleakest, and it's genuinely unsettling in the way that, say, the Log Lady is not. Rather than being the story of a strange small town, Fire Walk With Me tells the story of Twin Peaks as a story about a girl who is repeatedly raped and eventually murdered, and there's absolutely nothing charming about that.

It might just be because I was less focused on deciphering the plot, but Lynch's style seems heightened in comparison with the TV series and even some of the other movies he made around this time. The story unfolds in a kind of jazz-like alternation between absurdity, kitsch and horror. There isn't really a plot, but nevertheless I couldn't turn my eyes away. The return to horror makes Fire Walk With Me a worthy companion to the original series, and much more worthy of a revisit than some of those season 2 episodes.
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Gandahar (1987)
The only place worse than Kandahar
5 July 2014
It feels too easy to call Rene Laloux's animated movies "trippy", as if one can only appreciate them while on drugs. But there's a kind of weird dream logic mixed with hallucinogenic science fiction that Laloux, along with his collaborator Moebius and Alejandro Jodorowsky, seems to have mastered. Unfortunately, Gandahar was his last feature film, and not his best. But for animation buffs or fans of weird sci-fi, it's well worth a look.

Gandahar uses a fairly straightforward, action-driven space opera plot line. It dramatizes the clash between nature and technology, perhaps in an over-literal way. Most of the above-mentioned weirdness comes from a race of misshapen seers that speak in impossible tenses, and a plot that requires time travel to a point which is simultaneously past and future. It's not convoluted, but it's impossible to understand just as actual time travel would be to our chronologically-limited minds. Oh, and there are lots of breasts, most of them belonging to blue people. Between that and the violence, Gandahar is certainly much less child-friendly than Laloux's other films.

Gandahar isn't really original as a whole, although there's a lot of fun absurdities like giant crabs throwing rocks at armies of metal men. But it's a fun watch, with just enough weirdness to put it above the familiar repertoire of 1980s science fiction. If you're a fan of any of the artists mentioned above, this is a must-see. If you're not, maybe give Gandahar a chance anyway. Who knows, you might like it.
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Smoke (1995)
It gets in your eye
4 July 2014
From the Miramax logo that opens it, Smoke is very much of a piece with 90s faux-indy films in the vein of Pulp Fiction or Clerks. It shares a lot of traits with this wave of films: great actors, somewhat affected dialogue, a shaky portrayal of race and a distinct sense of machismo (although not nearly as nauseating as, say, Swingers). Where Smoke differs is in rejecting the violent nihilism that often haunted this decade. Instead, this is a story about communities forming and the minor miracle that is everyday survival.

Smoke is ostensibly centred around an ordinary corner smoke shop in New York City. We follow the shop, and the people around it, over the course of a year. There's a really laudable desire here to tell the story of a social environment rather than an individualist narrative. This is a goal that the film never quite fulfills, meandering into some fairly standard family drama with a refreshing lack of narrative closure. Even when the scenario would suggest melodrama, the overall focus of the film is not on what happens to our protagonists but the bonds that form between them.

The performances are as great as you would expect from reading the cast list, although Stockard Channing's character is too underwritten for her to really shine. The script is by novelist Paul Auster, eschewing most of his postmodern experimentation for street-level human drama. (There is still a novelist named Paul with a dead wife, so I guess some things never change). Auster's dialogue is usually authentic-sounding, save for the tendency to drift into stagey monologues that never really justify themselves.

As a film, Smoke is something of a failure -- it's unable to create the sense of place it aims for without relying on hoary story lines and drama. But there's also a lot to like about the film, from the brilliant cast to the relaxed pace. It's not all it could be, but it still deserves a look.
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Comedian (2002)
More or less a concert film
3 July 2014
Believe it or not, there was once a time when the world didn't know that stand-up comedians were all deep and self-loathing people. A decade before podcasts and FX shows would smother us with comedians' suffering geniuses, the documentary film Comedian set out to show that stand-up comedy, far from being a fun hobby, is a difficulty

The film does so by following two comedians -- Jerry Seinfeld, who was "as big as it gets", and the up-and-coming Orny Adams. Contrary to my expectations, Seinfeld was relatively likable, while the struggling young guy turned came off as a cocky hack. In theory Adams could make for a great documentary character, like the megalomaniac Troy Duffy of Overnight, and there are certainly hilariously clueless moments (folders labeled "JEWISH JOKES" and "DATING JOKES" stand out). But the film is never really sure how to deal with his narrative and ends up forgetting it entirely by the end.

Seinfeld's portions would have made a great 20-minute short, but as a feature-length documentary Comedian doesn't really go deep enough into the creative process. There are only so many times that we can hear that comedy is hard work. Filmmaking is hard work too, and a little more of it would have made this more than a watchable but inessential travelogue.
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Human Nature (2001)
A minor work, but still worthwhile
22 June 2014
Human Nature is easily the least-remembered and least-talked about film in Charlie Kaufman's small but memorable body of work, and probably in Michel Godnry's ouevre as well. That's not too surprising -- it was a box office flop, is rather rough around the edges, and was part of the tail end of a bunch of 90s indy romcoms that everyone would like to forget. But I think Human Nature is definitely worth revisiting, especially given the slim odds of a new Kaufman film any time soon.

Like Kaufman's other films, Human Nature grapples with the artificiality and all-encompassing anxiety of everyday life. Lila and Nathan are consumed with the attempt to deny their animal nature, which in effect means denying their own bodies. But despite their hours of etiquette training and electrolysis, animality keeps bursting out. The return to the wild and the acknowledgement of the animal appears for a time as a way to escape the postmodern anxiety that Kaufman constantly grapples with. But in the end, this is too easy a solution, and primitivism becomes another mediated narrative and ultimately a postmodern joke. But the escape to the wild was fun while it lasted -- and maybe, just maybe, there's something genuinely positive there.

Beyond the philosophical point, it's also funny movie that doesn't overstay its welcome. While thoroughly enjoyable, Human Nature doesn't take it easy on the audience, despite being in a genre associated with crowd-pleasing. All of the three central characters alternate between being sympathetic and repulsive, and if there's a romance we're supposed to be rooting for, it becomes very unclear by the end.

Kaufman's script is as good as ever, but many of the surrounding elements are pedestrian. Michel Gondry shows no sign of his usual visual flair or directorial ambition. Rhys Ilfan is good in a role that mixes endearing dorkishness with serial-killer menace, but other than him and a brief appearance by Peter Dinklage the performances are unremarkable and quickly forgotten. None of the visual or performative elements are exactly bad, but they lack the kind of inventiveness that would have made this film truly shine. Human Nature would have benefited from a Wes Anderson or a Rian Johnson at the helm.

Human Nature probably deserves its status as Kaufman/Gondry minora, but it's still well worth watching. Like most good art, it raises more questions than it answers, leaving the audience to find a way to reconcile the demands of nature and culture. If this is the worst movie you make, you're doing something right.
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A solid look at a terrible situation
5 June 2014
Warning: Spoilers
In the opening minutes, I thought this documentary would be about another school shooting -- and it was, but not the kind I assumed. Valentine Road exhaustively documents the events surrounding the murder of an openly queer (and stunningly brave) middle school student by one of his classmates, a killing at the intersection of numerous questions of homophobia, race, education and justice. One of the many talking heads says early on that every adult involved in the situation failed to do their job, and that's just about right.

There are moments when the film demonizes the killer, showing close-ups of an intimidating hooded figure, but also moments where he comes across as tragic, the victim of parental neglect and a social environment that lead him to hate. This makes the latter part of the film, dedicated to the murderer's trial, somewhat awkward -- it's hard to root for any possible outcome.

Valentine Road allows each side a chance to explain themselves, with the only common ground being a tremendous well of pain. Most of the speakers don't acquit themselves well, with several winding up blaming the victim for just being too flamboyant. Formally, it's a fairly ordinary TV documentary, with some thuddingly unsubtle touches. The closing montage set to "Same Love" is particularly cringeworthy, and leaves the viewer with an easy-to-swallow message of gay acceptance instead of the lingering complexities of the case and the seemingly insoluble question of how to respond to such an act of violence. But for presenting those complexities for most of its running time, Valentine Road is definitely worth watching.
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That shot of the scorpion and the ants alone gives this one an extra point
26 March 2014
Warning: Spoilers
The Wild Bunch probably has one of the best opening scenes in American cinema. We see a group of army men riding into town, a symbol of order in the once-chaotic American West, but at the same time there is a sense of foreboding, a sense confirmed by the nearby children playing with a pit of ants and scorpions. As it turns out, the soldiers are actually bank robbers in disguise, and the scruffy figures sitting on rooftops are what passes for the forces of law. But there are no heroes here, just violent animals scrambling for any advantage or momentary pleasure.

And so the robbery ends in a violent shootout in which seemingly half the town is caught in the crossfire. This shootout is shocking both for the level of violence which it openly displays in a genre accustomed to bloodless shootouts in which the bad guy fell down clutching his chest and for the people to whom the violence was directed. Women and children are shot down in the street, with neither side displaying an ounce of compassion. There is none of the order of pistols at high noon, simply a wild hail of bullets that quickly becomes an end in itself.

It's perhaps unrealistic to expect any film to maintain this level of brilliance and shock over two and a half hours (although the best can manage it). Shortly after the shootout, the titular wild bunch go down to Mexico, and the movie turns into something like Vera Cruz without as much charm. There are still some great sequences, and Peckinpah maintains a brilliant visual sensibility throughout, drawing on Sergio Leone's spaghetti Western style.

At its root, The Wild Bunch is a critique of the Western hero and the idea of redemptive violence that drives both genre film and American foreign policy. Here violence always escapes the intent of its perpetrators, and becomes an entity in itself, a kind of free-floating virus that is both horrible and erotic. The film ultimately relents on the amorality of its heroes -- by the end we have the American outlaws avenging the good Mexican by shooting down the bad Mexican. It still turns into chaotic carnage, but this carnage is much easier to contain within the Western's moral tropes. Like many directors of his generation, Peckinpah sets out to critique violent masculinity, but can never really escape its orbit, and the aestheticized violence in the film seduces as much as it repulses.

This is not a movie that everyone will like, but it's an important part of film history, and unlike many important parts of film history it still holds some of its power to surprise and shock today. At the very least, everybody should give it a try.
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Happiness (1998)
Needs more Hoffman, but doesn't every movie?
22 March 2014
There aren't a lot of movies that try to seriously portray depression, and even fewer that do so well. Happiness gets so much right it's almost traumatic. I found myself remembering lonely nights in the past, that mixture of hatred and longing for the outside world, the apparent monstrosity of happy people, and the crippling self-doubt that eventually turns you into the awful person you've already convinced yourself you are.

If there's one thread tying together this ensemble drama, it's mental illness and dysfunction, and the perils of ignoring it. All of the characters are ultimately incapable of understanding each others emotions, and this blindness has monstrous consequences. Otherwise, Happiness is somewhat disparate, using the loose framing device of an extended family to tie together stories of various subjects and quality. Most interesting to me was Philip Seymour Hoffman as an awkward introvert boiling over with rage that he can never express. Of course, expressing your inner longings is not necessarily a good thing, as with Dylan Baker's pedophile suburban dad. The latter plot often feels overextended, but Baker's oddly sympathetic performance makes it ultimately riveting in a grotesque way. Other plots, such as the jaunts down to a retirement community in Florida, are less interesting, and as the film goes on more and more hacky stereotypes start to creep in, with Gerald Harris's Russian lothario being the biggest example.

Todd Solondz presents the whole thing with a sunny TV-sitcom style that underscores both the horror and the ordinariness of what is going on. He also gets some great performances out of his actors, including the expected Hoffman and Baker and the less-expected Camryn Manheim and Jayne Adams. Solondz is a provocateur, sometimes to his detriment, and Happiness is undoubtedly a film that tries to shock and scandalize its audience. But its psychological understanding ultimately makes that shock more than a cheap thrill.
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You guys, black metal is actually pretty scary
16 March 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Until the Light Takes Us unfolds in an elliptical, almost mournful manner, full of empty and sometimes surreal shots and strange associative leaps in its argument. Beneath all of the directorial flourishes (which unfortunately still don't make talking heads interesting) is a chronological narrative about the rise of black metal in Norway, a musical movement which quickly spiralled outward into a cultural sensation and an increasingly violent subculture. All of this history, however, is constantly connected to the movement's intellectual and philosophical ideas. You may have heard of the most shocking events related here, but what really surprises is the mindset of the artists involved.

The film's best decision is to take black metal seriously. Rather than playing this material as grand guignol, or indulging in the tabloid fixation on Satanic imagery, Until the Light Takes Us treats the early days of black metal as a kind of bohemian cultural movement full of creativity. This portrayal gives the documentary a tangible sense of loss. What is lost is not just people, but also the sense of potential that black metal represented. There's a really clever scene where a musician travels to an art show based off black metal imagery, and is totally alienated by a culture that has rendered even the most profane image harmless.

Until the Light Takes Us makes a turn that's both clever and disturbing halfway through, when we realize that most if not all of the artists we've been getting to know for the past half hour are violent fascists. It complicates our earlier sympathies and makes us question the validity of the outsider-artist narrative. Of course, by the end we've descended into full-on murder, best captured in an absolutely unforgettable scene where convicted murderer Varg Vikernes tells a highly questionable story of killing his bandmate in the same manner you would describe going to the grocery store.

This film doesn't have much in the way of new material for those who are familiar with the events and musicians involved. But it deserves points for managing to both sympathize with the devil and realize what the implications of that sympathy are.
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Master's Sun (2013)
How do you say "I see dead people" in Korean?
28 December 2013
I've had a hard time getting into Korean TV dramas, mostly due to the sappy romanticism and general melodrama. Master's Sun was the first member of the genre that I've actually liked, as it brings both a fun supernatural angle and a lot of humour to the proceedings.

Central to the series's appeal is Hyo-Jin Kong as the heroine, Tae Gong Sil. Not only is Gong-Sil endearing in her weirdness, but she actually has a pretty impressive character arc over the course of the series, going from an outcast who can barely handle everyday life to a confident woman that can stand on her own. While her relationship to a rich CEO is a part of this growth, the series also acknowledges her need for independence, which is nice considering that the romance genre (on both sides of the Pacific) generally encourages a very unhealthy codependence. The other characters are all endearing in their own way, especially the ghosts, who are both visually striking and straddle the difficult line between scary and funny.

Master's Sun is still very much of its genre, containing within it evil twins, amnesia, tragic misunderstandings, questionable gender politics, kisses shot from five different angles, and the same K-Pop songs in every episode. At 64 minutes a pop, the episodes drag on too long for what is ultimately a fairly lightweight narrative. But even the soapier elements are executed better than one would have any right to expect. Even with my limited knowledge of K-Dramas, I can say that this isn't the best one out there, but judging from my experience it just might be a good gateway drug.
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Sightseers (2012)
I never thought about murdering innocent people that way
19 August 2013
Sightseers is a black comedy that starts out in the common rhythms of middle-class life and quickly turns into something quite different. As the titular travellers, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (who also wrote the screenplay) play a couple who discover that a holiday is more fun with a little spontaneous and unjustified homicide. That makes it sound like a shock film, but Sightseers invests a lot of thought and development into the troubled psyches of Tina and Chris.

This is not exactly Silence of the Lambs. While Chris and Tina are arguably serial killers, what's most notable is their total inability to grasp the morality of what they're doing, easily inserting killing into their routines and bickering. While Chris and Tina's murderous behaviour stems from their frustration at life, it also reflects the banal sociopathy of the tourist mindset. In their complete commitment to a momentary idyllic experience at the cost of anything else, Tina and Chris could be any boorish vacationer.

Alice Lowe is the real revelation here, effortlessly embodying her character's cracked mannerisms to managing to make even the most mundane statements into laugh limes. This is the rare comedy in which, instead of going over the top, the actors underplay their characters to great effect. The same can't be said of Ben Wheatley's direction, which is mostly competent but too heavy on the comedic slow-mo. It should be noted that the film lags in parts, but ultimately it's a brisk 90 minutes. Really it's just a treat to see how committed the actors are to their characters, and to taking their ridiculous premise seriously.
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Stranger than a lot of things, really
29 June 2013
I first encountered Stranger than Paradise in a Intro to Film tutorial - - I think it was for the week on cinematography. It was only the opening scene, but the visual style grabbed me right away. The grainy black and white, looking not like a 1980s feature film but rather newsreel of some mid-century atrocity, the long opening shot of Eszter Balint's Eva walking away from the airport like an angel of death, the almost-surreal scene of her walking through the streets blaring "I Put A Spell On You"... it stuck with me. A few years later, I finally got around to watching the film in its entirety. The visual style fades after a while and becomes invisible in the way cinematography tends to. But what emerges in its place is a slow but devastating character drama.

Stranger than Paradise is really about the immigrant experience in America. In this way it is a strange, low-key response to The Godfather. Whereas Coppola saw the story of the immigrant as one of struggle, seduction, and eventual corruption -- a Hollywood tragedy, in other words -- Jarmusch argues that it is a grind, an endless procession of ungrateful relatives, incomprehensible television, dead-end jobs, and the slow realization that no matter where you go, the banality of real life is always there ahead of you.

Jarmusch was a pioneer in independent American cinema. The style of Stranger than Paradise is echoed in any of the countless "mumblecore" films that deal with the mundanity of contemporary existence (and perhaps existence in general). It is frequently a boring film, mainly because it is about boredom and its omnipresence. Certainly it could be aesthetically improved, so that the dialogue and the characters have the same artistic grace as the cinematography. But somehow I like Stranger than Paradise just as it is. Instead of the catharsis of Hollywood, it leaves the viewer with an emptiness, a strange hole in their gut that they can't quite figure out what to do with. But maybe that hole was always there, and the film only cast a revelatory light on it.
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The genesis of Morgan Freeman, White People's Favourite Black Man
8 March 2013
Looking back, it's kind of startling how successful Driving Miss Daisy was, both in terms of awards and public recognition. It's not just that it's a bad film, because there are plenty of bad movies that are overrated for perfectly understandable reasons. But there's very little to grab onto here. It's a dull movie, with the drama and comedy being equally half-hearted, leaving us just watching a pleasant but not particularly interesting series of events. The direction is inept, and the performances are solid (excepting Dan Ackroyd's terrible southern accent) but don't have much to work with. The critical and commercial success of the film and the play it's based on would then seem to be a mountainous testament to America's willingness to hear a racial fairy tale.

Morgan Freeman, as Hoke Colburn, represents the kind of racial integration everyone can get behind. He's an old, cuddly black man whose rebellion against racism is never fiercer than an angry mutter under the breast and is usually the picture of folksy wisdom and compliance. What's more, the film gallingly presents the struggle for equality as Hoke's struggle to serve Daisy, and her acceptance of his service to her as an overcoming of prejudice. By this logic the antebellum south was a hotbed of anti-racism. It is, however, very comforting to the white movie-goer, who can now beam at their own acceptance as they take their popcorn from the black woman working for minimum wage behind the counter.

Driving Miss Daisy meanders from one year to the next, stopping on plots briefly and occasionally finding affecting material but never really having the focus to explore it. The makeup is perhaps the only thing done well here, ageing its characters two decades in a way that seems absolutely natural. In the end, while Driving Miss Daisy was only made in 1989, I've seen films from 1929 that seem fresher and less dated. The sepia-toned nursing-home cinematography accounts for a lot of that, but I'd like to imagine that its glib presentation of race is also part of why it seems so jarring to a contemporary viewer. On the other hand, The Help did pretty well for itself at the awards as well, so maybe that's wishful thinking.
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Fifty-two queens of diamonds tell you to watch this movie!
4 March 2013
The Manchurian Candidate, released in the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis is frequently offered up as a symbol of Cold War paranoia: the war has come home, and even an all-American war hero could be a secret assassin. But at the same time it's a surreal satire on that paranoia, from the memorable juxtaposition of a genteel garden party and a Communist war council to the absurd terms of the hypnosis to the bumbling ineptness of the film's McCarthy stand-in. At the same time it's a Freudian drama revolving around a repressed, frigid son and a controlling mother. In weaving together the political and the psychoanalytical inside the generic conventions of the spy genre The Manchurian Candidate turns out to be a better Hitchcock movie than anything Hitch ever directed.

The film never lags, but it takes its time establishing its characters and their motivations, as well as the web of political tension underlying everything. It's willing to spend twenty minutes moving plot pieces around, and those twenty minutes will go by like five. The performances of Laurence Harvey and Angela Landsbury as Raymond Shaw and his mother anchor the film and make it both human and profoundly cold. (Hollywood-mandated leads Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh don't embarrass themselves, although the latter's presence is a bit of an enigma.) I was entertained bell to bell, which usually doesn't happen with a two- hour movie from fifty years ago, so at least in that regards it's withstood the test of time, despite the very timely nature of its thematic concerns.

Beyond a couple of clunky plot contrivances and the usual Freudian misogyny, The Manchurian Candidate is a remarkable film that works as both a genre piece and as a social commentary. Like Dr. Strangelove (with which it would make an excellent double bill), it both emblematizes the height of Cold War paranoia and skewers it. Classic film buffs will already be well acquainted with it, but even for those who usually steer clear of anything black and white, it's well worth watching.
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Go beyond the impossible and kick the ball into the net
28 February 2013
Shaolin Soccer is, first and foremost, joyous. It's a live-action cartoon overflowing with enthusiasm for its subject matter, its characters, and just about everything else in the world. Plot-wise, it tells the story of a team of kung-fu experts who band together to create a super-powered soccer team and, after a lot of goofy team-building and conflict, do battle with their rivals, the literally-named Team Evil.

This might not be the film to introduce people to Hong Kong cinema with -- the cinematography seems cheap in all but the most major scenes, and some of the humour is distinctly odd. Chow's follow-up movie, Kung-Fu Hustle, is a slicker and more accessible picture. But there's a lot to love about Shaolin Soccer, which has plenty of laughs and (at least in my experience) not a single dull second. Not only that, but it has a message I think a lot of people need to take to heart -- whatever you do, whether it be soccer, martial arts, making steamed buns, or singing on street corners, do your best to make it awesome.
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