Thursday, September 30, 2010

More Fantastic Fest coverage: Outrage

As I type this, another year's wonderful Fantastic Fest has wound to a close. But I'll do my best to keep the groove alive over the next few days as I type up reports on some of the other films I've seen in this geekiest of weeks.


Outrage
If you're a fan of Japanese cinema at all, then you know the name of Takeshi Kitano. He is perhaps the filmmaker whom fans in the west most identify with the yakuza genre, although really knowledgeable geeks will always respect the preeminence of Kenji Fukasaku first and foremost. What a lot of gaijin fans may not be aware of is Takeshi's offbeat history. He actually began his career as a wacky TV comic, the kind who would do this sort of thing...

...which I imagine the Japanese find hilarious, but which I'm sure has just topped off your WTF tanks for the whole month.

So you can imagine the surprise Takeshi's fans felt when he began his movie career with ruthless and brutal movies like Violent Cop, about a violent cop, and Boiling Point, about a thug who reaches his boiling point and pretty much decides he likes it there. In these movies, the normally madcap Takeshi morphed into a deadpan, remorseless, imperturbable, sociopathic murder machine with liquid nitrogen for blood. And yet the end result of this wave of films was that Takeshi attained an all-new level of acclaim as a master director of crime films, whose unflinching approach to stories of the meanest and lowest dregs of society brought a heightened level of realism unknown since Fukasaku's heyday.

After perfecting his vision in this genre with Sonatine and his masterpiece Fireworks, Takeshi spent several years experimenting, offering strange exercises in art-house indulgence like Dolls, a wholly bizarre surrealist autobiographical trilogy, and what turned out to be his biggest worldwide success, his reimagining of the legendary samurai epic Zatoichi. With Outrage, Takeshi has come full circle and returned to the crime/yakuza genre that made his reputation as a director.

The good news is that, directorially, Takeshi fits right back into his yakuza groove as if it were an old favorite pair of slippers. He still has his signature knack for staging scenes of violence in a way that their severity actually retains emotional impact. He knows when to be graphic onscreen and when to let something occur offscreen for our imaginations to fill in, even if the nature of the violence depicted is not especially different. He can build tension and defuse it with humor at appropriate moments. All of this is why he's been hailed as an important director in international film.

The bad news is that the story here just about the emptiest Takeshi has ever worked with, though in its insane complexity it's the closest Takeshi has ever come to the kind of story Fukasaku is known for. We are introduced to two yakuza clans, Naruse and Ikemoto. When one of Naruse's low-ranking guys commits an unintended insult against someone slightly higher up the yakuza food chain in Ikemoto's family, the situation won't stop escalating. The tip-top yakuza boss man to whom both Naruse and Ikemoto answer, known only as "Mr. Chairman," decides this is a prime opportunity to rid himself of a partnership that threatens him, and manipulates both clans into all-out war. What ensues is a festival of gangster-vs-gangster carnage in which a number of very expensive designer label suits are absolutely ruined by exploding blood squibs.

Takeshi has always preferred unconventional narratives that avoid such norms as the three-act structure, and to say he has traded in morally conflicted characters is an understatement.

But even in an unconventional narrative I usually like to see a couple of storytelling basics adhered to, whether everything else about the story — such as not having a single likable character onscreen — defies convention. It's usually good for characters to undergo what's called an arc. This is a process in writing known as character development. The events of the story impact characters' lives in significant ways, causing them to undergo major personal changes in order to deal with said events. This doesn't mean they always have to learn to be better people, and it certainly doesn't mean they always have to triumph over adversity, though that certainly is Hollywood formula in a nutshell. But seeing a human being undergoing a personal evolution through crisis is at the heart of good storytelling, period.

The outrage in Outrage is that character development was simply left out of the equation entirely. The only change these characters experience is that of going from being alive to being formerly alive. All that the script has most of them do is shoot guys until it's their turn to be shot. Only in a subplot involving the Ikemoto clan blackmailing the ambassador of some postage-stamp sized fictitious African country does the script create anything like a substantive storyline. Mostly all we see is the yakuza population of Tokyo lightening the workload of the police by depleting its own numbers. Despite some undeniably high-five-worthy moments for gunplay mavens (and one darkly funny exercise in dental torture), this does get monotonous after a while, especially as you soon lose track of who's betraying whom.

For longtime Takeshi fans, this is worth a look. But in this "return to form," as it's being hailed, the famed auteur doesn't offer very much he hasn't already done with more originality, intensity and passion.

And I'll be back with more FF wrap-up reviews soon...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fantastic Fest 2010: the first two days

Fall is here, when a young geek's fancy darkly turns to thoughts of martial arts, chainsaws, and zombie squirrels. And once again, here in Austin, the week-long Fantastic Fest arrives just in time to sate our need.

Fantastic Fest is the brainchild of Tim League and the amazing gang behind the Alamo Drafthouse cinema experience. I don't know off the top of my head how many years it's run — I think fiveish — but it really is something special and unique to look forward to as autumn, or what passes for it in central Texas, begins. Last year, I took in a number of movies, many of which I liked a great deal (Zombieland, more fun in a crowd than perhaps at home on DVD; Antichrist, which I still cannot in good conscience actually recommend to most people I know; Paranormal Activity, which, yes, totally rocked, so fuck you; the wonderful low-budget UK crime movie Down Terrace, at last getting a release in the US; the even nastier [•REC]2; the surprisingly decent UK chiller The Children), and some of which were middling to awful (The Vampire's Assistant; Romero's heartbreakingly disappointing Survival of the Dead; a half-assed low-budget UK monster movie thing called Salvage).

So far, we're two days in to this year's festival, and I've caught more screenings than I did by this time last year. I am, however, avoiding most of the big premieres that are shown downtown at the Paramount this time out. I'd love to catch the Yuen Woo Ping double-feature/tribute there tomorrow night, but it's a lot of extra money, and I think I'd like to do the ACA Bat Cruise instead — which I totally missed last year because I was seeing two shitty premieres at the Paramount.

So here's a rundown on what I've been lucky enough to catch, and I'll be posting more as the week plays out.


Thursday:

Golden Slumber
Here's one where I walked in completely cold, knowing nothing than it was a Japanese film, which automatically gives it a leg up in my book. It's a thriller that gradually replaces its tension with a sense of whimsy and feel-goodishness as it progresses. Yet for all that it throws logic to the winds in order to get itself to its climax, it's never less than entertaining. Our hero is a hapless young delivery man, Aoyaga, who, back when he was in college, formed a little music appreciation club with three other friends deeply into the Beatles. As the movie opens, he's meeting one of these old friends for what he thinks will be a fishing trip. It turns out that forces unknown are setting Aoyaga up to be the patsy, like Lee Harvey Oswald (the movie kind of takes for granted conspiracy theories about JFK), in a planned assassination of the Prime Minister.

The movie opens great, helped immensely by Aoyaga's likability as a meek regular dude who doesn't understand what's happening to him and just wants his life back. It starts off leading you to think you're going to get a Hitchcockian "wrong man" chase movie like North by Northwest. And you do get that. But the tone of the whole piece gradually begins to morph, from suspenseful to frequently comical. This doesn't hurt the movie, but it does underscore how the whole thing is perhaps trying to cover too much ground. The movie takes great care to contrive elaborate set-pieces surrounding Aoyaga's flight. He runs into a number of offbeat characters — including an old man in a hospital with connections to the "underground," and even a serial killer (!) who behaves more like a mischievous kid — eager to help him unravel the mystery behind who is setting him up. The script is one of those that throws out little memes at you. Little details are mentioned pertinent to the characters' earlier lives, simply so that they can be brought in at key moments in the story much later.

The screenwriters just keep throwing ideas into the mix, with the result that the movie runs a little too long (at 139 minutes). It deals thematically with everything from the way the powers that be use media manipulation to make sure the public only sees and thinks what they want, to the fleeting nature of fame and the comparative longevity of infamy, while pointedly reaffirming the value of friendship and love all the while. It's a big hodgepodge but totally watchable and delightful in its best moments, and it got a big round of applause. Glad I saw it.

Ong Bak 3
No one in the audience for this third installment of Thai superstar Tony Jaa's franchise was expecting much. But even going in with low standards, it was disappointing. It's one thing to make a formulaic martial arts movie, but it's another thing entirely to be so bound to the genre's most overused tropes that you don't even bother to rise above them and offer something that even makes a pretense of being original.

The story here is so boilerplate it might have been autocomposed by a screenwriting program. So I guess there's this evil king, and Tony Jaa is the good guy who's pissed him off, and as the movie opens, Jaa has been tortured nearly to death, which then leads us to the usual de profundis thing where he must be rescued, then spend way too much screen time healing and meditating, so that he can ultimately go and open up several 12-packs of Thai whoop-ass upon said villain.

Yeah, fine, whatever. If I cared at all about any of these characters, I guess this would matter. But the script just goes through the motions, and even the fight scenes are pretty uninspired. Since I'm not recommending you see this, I have no trouble spoiling the moment where Jaa is just plain killed outright with a spear through his heart, allowing him to suddenly do this Prince of Persia time-reversal thing and win anyway. Which seems like cheating. And I didn't understand it where he suddenly got this power from. Just bad and lazy, with too much low-rent CG, even for martial arts mavens. And to think Jaa, when he first hit the scene, was being hailed as the guy who would make us all forget there ever was a Jackie Chan. There's a little thing called charisma that got left out of the recipe, I fear.

Buried
Well. Damn. Damn!

This is the one that's been getting all manner of buzz since it premiered at Sundance, both for its audacious premise and Ryan Reynolds' award-caliber performance. I must say, whenever movies are preceded by hype, rarely do they live up to it all. Finally getting a chance to see it knowing nothing but its premise — Reynolds is an American in Iraq who's been kidnapped and buried alive — I have to say I was stunned by its execution by Reynolds and Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes.

The whole 95 minutes of the movie takes place entirely in the crude wooden casket in which Reynolds' character has been buried. Since the pure horror and claustrophobia of having this happen to you can be dealt with in fewer than five minutes, the trick with a premise like this is to compose a gripping storyline against which the hero's ordeal can unfold. And it's in delivering a tense and believable script that Buried wins.

I don't want to give anything away if I can help it. Suffice it to say that the script doesn't simply present us with a sympathetic hero in the worst of all possible situations, but it has a thing or two to say about what we're doing in Iraq, and the questionable behavior of those American corporations contracted to work in the "reconstruction" over there, who are arguably war-profiteering in the most callous possible way. And it does all that without any overt political pontificating. Some of the calls Reynolds is able to place with the cell phone left to him by his captors had the audience groaning in dismay.

If you aren't already a claustrophobe, this movie will make you one. I really can't think of a movie that has managed to sustain suspense at such a high level so consistently from beginning to end. As the movie progresses we find that there are one or two things worse about being buried alive in a coffin than that it has happened to you at all. There is even, inasmuch as such a thing can be shot within the confines of a coffin, what can be called an action sequence. If you see this, do it theatrically, because the experience simply will not be the same on DVD, or on your PC via some shitty torrent. It's an immersive film that requires a darkened auditorium, and big screen, and a horrified audience to make complete.

After the screening, Reynolds and Cortes did a light-hearted Q&A session to bring everybody down, in which we were told repeatedly how much Reynolds hated the whole shoot (and it certainly comes through in his performance).

Finally, there's one little detail of awesomeness to mention, as an illustration of just why the Alamo is the greatest thing to happen to geekdom since Princess Leia's brass bikini. Prior to the festival a contest was held online, with the four winners (all of whom turned out to be very gutsy young women) enjoying the unique experience of watching Buried while actually buried in coffins themselves. Here is the little video of that moment in history.

I'm not at all ashamed to admit my geek-fu will never match theirs.


Friday:

Only caught two screenings yesterday, and blew off the Sharktopus premiere at the Paramount. Even with z-movie demigod Roger Corman and his wife in attendance, there are limits to my willingness to piss away extra money on something, however "fun" anyone wants me to think it'll be, that I know will just be pure moldy cheese. What I saw instead were:

Fire of Conscience
Hong Kong action movies, which were Totally The Thing in the 90's, have been enjoying a bit of a resurgence since Infernal Affairs kicked everyone's ass and gained international legitimacy by being remade by Martin Scorsese as the film that finally won him his overdue Oscar. What's interesting is now to see how the stylistic influence has reversed. In the 90's, it was all about American filmmakers trying to mimic the action style of John Woo. Now, we have Hong Kong filmmakers trying to mimic the style of the Bourne movies.

Dante Lam is at the forefront of the new generation of HK action directors, and I must say, he knows his way around a gun battle. He's somewhat derivative in the way he cops that shakycam shit from 24 and other obvious sources, but he definitely knows how to put an exciting picture together. I have to say this is the only movie I've ever seen in which a gunfight — in a burning building, no less — is interrupted by a childbirth. Which we get to see in some medical detail.

But in the end, for all its technical brilliance, I can't call Fire of Conscience a future HK action classic like Jackie Chan's Police Story or Woo's Hard-Boiled, because it simply trades in too many HK-specific clich├ęs. Essentially we have the tried and true formula of betrayed brotherhood. You have two male protagonists who begin the story as allies, and who will eventually be pulled apart and end the film as bitter enemies emptying numerous clips in each other's general direction. There are heaps of the expected melodrama — characters are haunted and driven by the anguished memory of dead spouses and dying friends — and the initially confusing story finally unfolds more or less as you expect. Still, those gunfights — many of which are staged in very public places like crowded restaurants and Hong Kong's notoriously tightly packed city streets — are absolutely top notch. Give this guy Dante Lam a really original script for a crime drama, and he stands to make an international name for himself.

Zombie Roadkill
At last, a little movie that delivers exactly what it promises. What was screened was in fact the first half hour webisode of a 6-part online comedy/horror series premiering at FearNet in October.

By now we've all seen both good and bad attempts at zombie comedies, but this one not only puts a fresh spin on things — yes, roadkill is coming back to life and menacing vacationers in a national park somewhere — but wastes no time in cutting to the good stuff and offering loads of hilarious scenes and dialogue. Much of that is delivered by Thomas Haden Church as a gruff park ranger who no sooner says "Stick with me if you wanna live, kid," than he gets his arm torn off.

This is all very much in the spirit of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 (the filmmakers are not surprisingly all crew veterans of Spider-Man 3, where they got to know Church) and Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. So if you enjoy the way those movies handle comedy gore, then you'll dig this too. The crowd was laughing like hell and cheering the more creative undead animal attacks — there's one whack-a-mole sequence that had everyone practically in tears — and at only 30 minutes, it was a perfect serving of sheer bloody silliness. Best of all, no CGI. All the critter effects in this movie were old school puppeteer work at its bestest. Keep an eye out for this one on FearNet for sure. How can you possibly miss a zombie critter movie directly inspired — as both writer and director confessed — by Monty Python & the Holy Grail's killer rabbit?

Wow. So, that's just the first two days. More reports to come, gang. Did I mention how much I love this festival? Well, I do. I love it like a lovey thing.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The failure of Scott Pilgrim and the realities of geek cinema

I have not yet seen Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the movie that was supposed to be this summer's awesome geek sleeper hit. Neither, it seems, have a lot of people. As of this writing, Pilgrim has taken in $27.2 million in 21 days of release. In Hollywood's ideal world, this would have been its opening Friday night take alone. In contrast, the moronic spoof Vampires Suck has taken in $29.2 million in only 16 days of release, and the utter bullshit-fest Piranha 3D has taken in $20 million in 14 days, with a weekend coming up. Meaning that when it has been out for 21 days it will probably be north of $27 million too.

So why, a million websites and blogs are asking, has this ever-so-clever little opus failed to connect? People who have seen it, like our very own Gia and Ryan, have fallen bonkers-crazypants in love with it, seeing it multiple times. (Though I have read a few online reviews by fans of the graphic novel expressing the usual disappointment in how it was adapted.) Ryan has gone so far as to purchase the video game and all the books, and may well be considering taking steps to have his name legally changed to Scott Pilgrim. So among the people who are discovering it, it's striking a chord — pardon the pun.

Just what is this movie about anyway? The teaser one-sheet made it look like a rock n' roll movie. Plus it did its level best to hide star Michael Cera's face, generally not a sign of studio confidence in their product.

Why my dear friends have yet to persuade me to see the movie, and why people in general are staying away despite such great word of mouth and strong reviews, is being heatedly debated all over the interweebs as if it were the great mystery of the age. I'm going to try to cut through the chest-beating and finger pointing and try to elucidate what I think are some practical realities about this business.

Geeks just aren't that impressive a demographic.

While it has finally become socially acceptable to get your geek on, those who do so as a way of life still do not measure in anything like the kinds of numbers sufficient to support a strong counterculture. What geeks do have is an immeasurable capacity to form the kinds of enclaves in which they are the mainstream. And since a prerequisite for being a geek in the first place is a willingness to throw all shame to the winds in expressing your undiluted, obsessive love and devotion for whatever it is you're into at that moment, the levels of energy expressed at such enclaves as Comic-Con International can give non-geeks a somewhat skewed impression. Non-geeks working as studio suits think that the near-riots they see at Comic-Con are indicative of society's attitude towards their product as a whole, and they expect the world to simply be a scaled-up version of Comic-Con.

Hence the head-scratching and waves of executive job loss that erupt in the wake of such box-office disappointments as Snakes on a Plane, Aeon Flux and Scott Pilgrim. Yes, it's true there are many movies that premiere at Comic-Con that go on to be huge hits. These tend to be movies with more going on for them in a marketing sense than Scott Pilgrim had: either they're based on comic properties well-known and established for decades, like most of the Marvel and DC superhero lineup, or they're the latest in an established movie franchise like Terminator, or they feature stars far more appealing to the general public than Michael Cera.

But it's interesting how Hollywood has latched onto Comic-Con as the main event of the summer to promote its upcoming slate of wannabe-blockbuster movies. In a way Comic-Con has supplanted such established festivals as Sundance, Toronto or Cannes as the place to get the buzz going for movies (keep this in mind, as it will come up again in a minute) — and they do it without even having to show the movies! But while it's easy to get excited at the spectacle of a Comic-Con auditorium full of 5,000 geeks all going into apoplectic seizures over your teaser trailer, studios should at least have the sense to realize that 5,000 geeks are not necessarily representative of tens of millions of everyday Americans...the very people they need to spend that $100 million box office that will keep the suits their jobs.

And even among geeks, there's a lot of cynicism

Face it, we've all been burned. We've been burned by nipples on Batsuits, Nic Cage's endless collection of creepy hairpieces, and those goddamned Star Wars prequels to be wholly willing to give ourselves over to much of anything these days. Yes, I just got done talking about the excessive enthusiasm of geekitude and the circus atmosphere of Comic-Con. But Comic-Con is an event, and as such is conducive to building the sorts of mob excitement identified with fandom. I mean, what — are fans gonna not scream their little propellerheads off when Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron steps onto the stage?

But get a geek back home, let the cheering die down a little bit, and they're all too inclined to remember that all it takes is one Catwoman to take the wind out of your sails for a good while. The fact that these may be the very same geeks who were responding to Comic-Con teasers and clips by ejaculating with such force as to risk hospitalization doesn't mean the magic will still be there when the actual movie hits the mall, and the predictable round of "it sucks" whining begins to crop up on AICN. Too many times have geeks had their hopes built up, then dashed. Chickens coming home to roost and all that.

It's very likely Scott Pilgrim was just made and marketed all wrong

Remember just a moment ago when I mentioned the festival circuit? It's entirely likely that, by treating Pilgrim strictly as a comic-book, major-studio, summer-release property, and failing to glom on to the festival circuit, the studio may have seriously miscalculated. Wikipedia tells me that the only festival Pilgrim played was Toronto's Fantasia Fest. Hell, why not try to place it in TIFF? It's like it didn't even occur to them.

For all that the movie is based on graphic novels, they aren't really superhero fare in the traditional sense. There's a much more indie-flavored sensibility to the comics' humor. If the studio had devoted, say, $25 million to the production instead of $60 million, they could easily have left the source material's quirky wit intact. By allowing the movie more time to build buzz on the festival circuit, where there certainly is an audience for this stuff, they might have found themselves with a Napoleon Dynamite-style left-field hit on their hands, instead of what will undoubtedly now be known as a Scott Pilgrim-style faceplant flop. In other words, they tried to go mainstream with something that isn't really mainstream in the least, and they assumed a fan base was simply there, ready and waiting, when it wasn't. Such marketing fail has brought down movies that deserved better many times before. After all, Hollywood has never really known what to do with movies that are even the tiniest bit challenging or outside of formula. Here, they may have just been trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.

So Scott Pilgrim vs. the World seems destined for cult status. In a sense, that's not necessarily a bad thing, and can serve as some comfort to its most devoted fans. (There there, Gia and Ryan, come here, have a hug.) The history of geek cinema is full of movies that were not exactly blockbusters upon their initial release, only to finally find their audience on DVD in after years. Office Space, Donnie Darko, Fight Club, John Carpenter's The Thing, the list goes on. I feel pretty confident that while Pilgrim may be a dud right now, in 20 years, people will be buying the 20th anniversary Blu-ray (or whatever HD format we have then), while Vampires Suck won't even be in print.