Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I Don't Feel Twenty


Headquarters 10 is 20 years old. I know what you're thinking: Isn't this blog only six months old? Yes, but Headquarters 10, the real place, opened 20 years ago today. It's a movie theater somewhere in New Jersey where I worked for, um, a very long time and a place that helped feed my movie addiction. That list of films represents the first 10 films (11, actually, as BENJI THE HUNTED played matinee shows) to open the HQ10. There were also a pair of sneak previews (for STAKEOUT and the underrated BACK TO THE BEACH) and the place was a madhouse. A new multiplex was a pretty big deal in the area, so a lot of people showed up, and as I recall there were not a heck of a lot of screw-ups that opening weekend, other than figuring out where all the crowds went. In fact, we never really got that part worked out properly, but whatcha gonna do?

The HQ10 was also a really nice movie theater, with solid projection, good sound and theaters that didn't all feel like cookie-cutter multiplex crap, even the tiny ones. And the seats were really nice, almost like airline seats (which many people complimented us on), and still among the best movie theater seats I've ever sat in. It was a really state of the art movie theater for 1987 and stayed a solid place to see a movie for many years. We even had a theater equipped for 70mm, though we only used it once, for DICK TRACY in 1990.

It would be next to impossible for me to articulate just what this place meant to me in my time there, but it truly was a home away from home and all of the good memories easily outweigh the bad (of which there were a few). The many nights we stayed in watching movies after closing (we watched ROADHOUSE twice the night before it opened - twice!), those times just hanging out, milking the clock, bullshitting and making fun of each other, many of them happy memories. A lot of the friends I made in my time there are people who, even though I haven't seen many of them in several years, are people I would still consider friends today. Like an army platoon, it was an experience we all went through together and there's this feeling that you're linked together for life because of it.

Probably the most important thing about this place was that it established not so much my love of movies (which was already well in place) but my love of movie theaters, that these places are as much a part of what makes a movie than anything else. I suppose it was spoiling in that this was a good place to see a movie and I certainly saw more than enough of them (no joke, I saw probably 75% of the films that played at this place over the space of many years). The whole experience made me appreciate the quality of the presentation and of the experience itself, of how the right audience can make a picture even more of a success. It was also a great place to study and memorize films that quickly would become favorites; I remember back when we would sync movies from one theater to another (that is, make one print play in more than one theater at a time), I would often walk from theater to theater to catch those memorable moments (like a big laugh or a great scare), just to get the reactions of the audience. I got to experience some of my all-time favorite movies there when they were brand new to the world and I could sample them many times over. We would hold on to certain film prints for a few weeks (sometimes months) longer just so we could stay and watch them again after closing. There were accidents (two words: Print Drop), projector meltdowns, practical jokes, fuck-ups (accidentially putting the incorrect title over the wrong theater was cause for dismissal), nice customers, rude customers, cool managers, angry managers, stupid managers (including the dumbest person I've ever met in my life), regular customers who we liked (among them, Jane Krakowski), regular customers we didn't (with nicknames like The Styngian Witches and The Last Boy Scout), crushes on co-workers and customers, and a lot of hours spent waiting in-between shows. What can I say, it was my youth. It's over now, but for the most part, I remember it fondly.

The HQ10 is still up and running, but another theater chain owns it now I haven't been there in years. I'm told that it's still decently run and ever since some bigger theaters have opened in the area it's pretty easy to get a ticket on a Saturday night. The mall that ran adjasect to it is now pretty much just offices and businesses and the place kinda looks out of place there. But for a long period of time it was ours, and it started 20 years ago today.

Happy anniversary, HQ10.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


Up until last weekend I had never seen a Uwe Boll film. I had been warned off them for so long and never took much interest in them to begin with, that I figured I wasn't really missing anything. Boll's infamy among film geeks has risen to legendary proportions in a fairly quick period of time, but when the multitudes of both fanboys and film critics are unanimous in their dislike of the guy's films, you figure that they have to be on to something here. But earlier this year I started to hear some positive word about his upcoming comedy POSTAL (based on a video game, of course) and when I heard the film was accepted into both Fantasia and Fantastic Fest, I figured it was time to give it a chance. Then I saw Mr. Boll make a personal appearance in the NY/NJ area back in June, and his presentation was so lively and animated, I figured I could go into this with a pretty open mind. If he was able to get what I saw on stage onto the screen, he might have something here.

POSTAL was set to screen at Fantasia along with another Boll epic, IN THE NAME OF THE KING: A DUNGEON SIEGE TALE, yet another video game adaptation, but this one with a much bigger budget and some decent names in the cast: Jason Statham (who I like a lot), Ray Liotta, Burt Reynolds, Ron Pearlman, and Leelee Sobieski. With both pictures there's a sense that you know what to expect: POSTAL will be a brash, offensive comedy while DUNGEON SIEGE will be filled with lots of swords and sorcery and “Yonder lies the palace of my fadder, da king” dialogue. Interestingly enough, many in the crowd seemed to be excited by Boll and his films, a change from the usual reception he gets, and both shows sold out. Almost like an entertainer, he worked the crowd pretty well before POSTAL's Saturday night midnight show and the Sunday afternoon KING show, perhaps giving each showing an undue advantage, though it might be advised that he does this at most critics screenings in the future. The crowd loved him and as he left halfway during DUNGEON SIEGE to catch his flight back to Vancouver (where he’s shooting another movie), he shouted out, “See you next year!” to much applause. That said, once the show is on the screen, the movies themselves will succeed or fail on their own merits.

So is POSTAL any good? Not exactly, though I've seen worse and I didn't hate it. This is Boll's attempt at making an outrageous and offensive comedy that's in response to the state of the world today and if anything, it shows that comedy is not really Boll's forte. Not surprisingly, Boll piles on one more "shocking" joke or scene after another on you and it's all overkill. Sometimes it works, but most often it doesn't, kind of like SOUTH PARK but without the wit, creativity and intelligence. He gives us jokes like a pair of September 11 hijackers arguing over how many virgins they get (“72 virgins? I was told it was 99!”) and Bin Laden telling Bush “I wish I could quit you”, along with jokes that play on racism, stereotypes, religion, political incorrectness and a lot of it falls flat. I will admit that there are some jokes that do hit their target and every so often he comes upon what feels like an inspired gag (my favorite involving a bunch of dead kids; you just have to see it) or one-liner and there’s one really funny scene during a welfare office shootout. Also, I liked lead Zack Ward a lot, and you can never go wrong with Dave Foley, even if you get him to perform a full-frontal nude scene (yes, he does). With POSTAL, Boll intends to piss everyone off, insult them and tell you it’s all good for you. Now, I’m not saying that he doesn’t have a point or anything to say, but what’s really missing is focus; the targets are everyone and everywhere, so instead of picking one, he’s just aiming all over the place (going postal, as it were). That’s fine for something like AIRPLANE!, but when you’re dealing with satire, focus is pretty much the key. Without it, you make a big, giant mess, sloppy in both planning and execution. But I can’t say the film is bad because at least Boll is making at attempt at something; he thinks he’s making a statement and I applaud him, or any filmmaker, who goes out on a limb like this, even though he’s being pretty obvious. Yeah, the world is pretty fucked up these days and it’s probably going to be that way for a while. People are on edge, disconnected from one another, selfish and self-centered, most lacking any moral foundations. Hey Uwe, tell me something I don’t already know, OK? That’s all POSTAL is saying, nothing more, and I can’t really go on just that. Satire is a very tough thing to do; for every THE LOVED ONE there’s a MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. They say that people get the governments they deserve and I think the same is true of satires, as well. During the finale of the Clinton era we got SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER, & UNCUT, and now under the twilight of Bush we get POSTAL. That says something right there.

As odd as it may sound, IN THE NAME OF THE KING almost suffers in comparison, even though it’s a much better film. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s pretty decent, a not-bad throwback to the likes of KRULL by way of LORD OF THE RINGS that provides an acceptable amount of entertainment, all despite a lot of eye-rolling dialog and some hammy performances. It doesn’t take any of the chances that POSTAL does, although it doesn’t really have to, either, and it seems that Boll’s ambitions with this one are simply to tell the story and showcase a lot of action, which he does fairly well. It’s one of those “mythical kingdom is threatened by an evil wizard and his army” kinda deals and as such, it’s a more than painless timewaster. And to give Boll credit, the film delivers where it really counts, in several extended action and battle sequences that are extremely impressive and more than make the movie. They’re choreographed by the great Hong Kong martial arts director Ching-Sui Tung (here credited as Tony Ching) and are pretty astounding and they’re not over-edited or hard to follow. He also makes great use of B.C. locations and the FX, while plentiful, are likewise not overdone. And I have to give IN THE NAME OF THE KING credit for one other thing you almost never see in medieval epics, a racially diverse cast. One of the film’s lead performers is Brian J. White (who’s quite good) and there are other prominently featured African-American performers seen throughout, which is quite refreshing. It helps give the film a slight edge and easily works in its favor. Some of the other casting isn’t quite as successful (Matthew Lillard seems to have been directed to ham it up and Burt Reynolds may be the first king on movie history with a face lift), but in the end it doesn’t matter. IN THE NAME OF THE KING does its job reasonably well and I suppose is Boll’s best film to date, but then again, the only other film of his I’ve seen is POSTAL.

Easily the most interesting thing I’ve seen Uwe Boll do wasn’t on a theater screen but on the streets of Montreal (Ste-Catherine, to be exact). After the midnight screening of POSTAL got out at around 3am (it started late and then there was the Q&A), a large group of us, which included Uwe, THE DEVIL DARED ME TO’s Chris Stapp and Matt Heath, Mitch Davis and myself, were looking for a place to go and grab some food and drink. All the bars in Montreal close at 3am, so an all-night restaurant named Cine Express (which we’ve been to many times during Fantasia) was suggested. As we walked over, this drunk guy walking across the street passed out and hit his head on the ground pretty badly. Uwe called the paramedics and stayed with the guy until well after they showed up, despite the fact that the guy was so drunk that he insisted he was OK and didn’t need any help. As it turns out, Uwe missed his chance at food (the kitchen closed early that night) and couldn’t even find a seat, but I found the whole thing to be more than a little bizarre. Did the guy who just made a movie where a cop shoots a woman because she won’t move her car just help out a complete stranger on the street like that? If I hadn’t have witnessed it with my own eyes I’d think it was all staged, but there it was, plain as the nose on Uwe’s face. I guess inside that tough, critic-boxing exterior beats a kind heart. I don’t know if we’ll ever see it on the big screen, but it’s sure earned my respect, even if POSTAL didn’t.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"Remember Randy: No Matter What, Stunts Are Cool" - THE DEVIL DARED ME TO

Bar none, the highlight of the Fantasia Film Festival for me was Chris Stapp and Matt Heath's THE DEVIL DARED ME TO, one of the most entertaining pictures I've seen all year. It's the picture I'd been most looking forward to seeing, due mainly to the fact that it was produced by my good friend Anthony Timpson, and it pleases me to no end to say that it does not disappoint. I love it when my friends succeed.

DEVIL is a stunt comedy - that is, a comedy about stuntmen - and it doesn't do anything other than make you laugh a lot and give you a really good time at the movies. There's no subtext, no satirical underbelly, not much about it that distinguishes it from, say, a Will Ferrell movie. It's a simple comedy with a lot of jokes thrown at you in rapid succession and it's over before you know it. But like most really good comedies, even the ones without much substance, it has something that sets it apart: ambition. THE DEVIL DARED ME TO feels like the work of filmmakers who are hungry to not just please an audience, but to make a movie that's going to be colossally entertaining, a picture that you'll remember years from now, a classic, even. Does it reach those lofty aspiration? Somewhat. I have a big smile on my face when thinking about it and desperately want to see it again, but all that means for sure is that I really like the movie, nothing more. But I also admire the hell out it and that's not something I say about a lot of pictures.

THE DEVIL DARED ME TO was written and directed by the comedy team of Chris Stapp and Matt Heath, who created some of the films' characters on their NZ TV show Back of the Y Masterpiece Television. More of a sketch comedy show with some crazy stunts than another Jackass rip-off, the film takes the character of stuntman Randy Campbell (Stapp) and tells of his dream to become the greatest stuntman in New Zealand, despite a history of all of his family member dying through dangerous stunts. Doing grunt work for second-rate asshole stuntman Dick Johansonson (Heath), he gets his chance when Johansonson (great, great, great fucking name) is sent to jail after attempting to kill Randy during a dangerous stunt. That's pretty much all the plot description you'll need because like I've already said, this is not a plot-heavy movie, but part of its joy is that it's not merely a collection of stupid jokes and loud stunts, because there really is a movie here. Stapp and Heath seem to have been working towards this moment most of their lives and they don't blow it; the film moves at a fast pace, all of the comedy and action is timed and edited expertly and even though it's only 77 minutes long, you leave it feeling more than satisfied but still hungry for more. Timing and rhythm is the key to all comedy and THE DEVIL DARED ME TO gets it just right, with the many jokes never getting in the way of each other or the plotting (despite many thick Kiwi accents). On top of all this, the casting is near-perfect, with Heath's Johansonson easily stealing the film along with excellent support from Andrew Beattie as "Spanner's Dad" and one Ant Timpson as Announcer #2 (the film is worth seeing for him alone). And lastly, I congratulate it for the most judicious use of the "f" word than any film I can think of in a long, long time. It's used often and often used properly and that just one of the many wonderful things about this film.

Augmenting the DEVIL DARED ME TO experience was the fact that there was a bomb scare at Concordia University (where Fantasia's screenings are held) that delayed the film for over an hour, giving certain parties ample opportunity to get good and drunk. So what followed was a spirited Q&A, which included actual stunts (Stapp leap directly into the audience not once, but twice) and a nice shout out to Mr. Timpson. I was lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time talking to both of them (Matt Heath, especially) and found them to be smart, likable guys who took what they do quite seriously. I have this feeling in my bones that these guys may be the next big thing and that THE DEVIL DARED ME TO (which is locking down a U.S. distributor as we speak) could be a cult hit in the making, and deservedly so. It's fucking great.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

And... I'm Back

8 days, 22 films. Actually 23, because I took in EXILED for a 3rd time. God, I love that movie.

So the train ride up there was not my favorite experience in the world, I have to admit. Like I said before, I'm OK with most forms of travel, but I can't stand the boredom, the sitting and waiting part, and the NYC to Montreal Amtrack ride was full of that. Granted, I was traveling alone, but just sitting and looking out the window for hours on end (despite some lovely scenery) was a bit too much, on top of the fact that I barely made the damn thing to begin with (which is another matter). I tried napping and took the opportunity to finish Donald Westlake's WHAT I TELL YOU THREE TIMES IS FALSE and start Tom Robbins' ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION, but all the fine reading in the world couldn't make this trip go any faster. Adding to this was the fact that we arrived almost 3 hours late (making me miss the Thai thriller 13 BELOVED, which many said was quite good), so my affection for rail travel is severely hampered, unlike some people I know.

In fact, just sitting there all day kinda turned me off sitting down and watching movies all night (strange, I know), so I ditched MULBERRY STREET (which everyone's raving about) and Troma's POULTRYGIEST for a meal with friends at Ruben's and an evening of another kind of entertainment at Cleopatra's, Montreal's reigning house on strippery and a Fantasia staple. I'm honestly not one to frequent strip clubs, but Cleo's strikes me as what a strip club should be like, sleazy like a strip club, but with heart. Chances are good that you're not going to walk into the bathroom and interrupt a drug deal in progress and no one is going to pressure you to buy lap dances you don't want. And like I said, the place is a staple of my Fantasia visits and I've hung out there with numerous filmmakers, friends and fellow film fans, giving it a sense of being the strip club away from home. I know that I'm sounding like much more of a perv than I really am, as I swear to fucking god that I never really go into these places, but if I'm going to be honest about the Montreal experience then there's no reason I shouldn't mention the place.

So I'm trying to figure out exactly the best way of relating Fantasia 2007 and I'm a bit stuck about how to do it. I know that there will be certain films I will highlight and certain films I'll probably never mention. I could possibly rattle off every single film I saw there, but that would take fucking forever and I'd never get it all down right. Certainly, some films will be highlighted, but there also isn't that much to say about a secondary picture like THE VICTIM, other than the fact that there isn't much to write about. Overall, it was a very good selection this year, though there was only one great standout picture, though on the flipping side, only one dog, too (that would be a shot-on-DV thing called THE REDSIN TOWER). Many of the pictures I saw I liked, some of them very much and others just well enough. Many filmmakers came in to visit, and pretty much all of them were cool and friendly, even Uwe Boll. There was a bit of behind the scenes drama when a Canadian friend of mine was refused entry into the U.S. (a very long story), but all in all, it was yet another stellar time at Fantasia and a much-needed break from a lot of shit that's been going on, making it the right fest at the right time.

So anyway, here's a rundown of all 23 films. Expect some longer pieces on some and not much of anything on others.








If you're interesting in hearing about one more film in particular, just let me know.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I'm Still At Fantasia

Fantasia continues for me until Sunday, but in the meantime here are a few stills to prove that I am, in fact, at Fantasia:

Larry Fessenden, director of THE LAST WINTER (one of the highlights of the fest), being interviewed for Fantasia video blog by fellow filmmaker Karim Hussein.

DEATH NOTE director Susuke Kaneko giving his all for this exciting pose. Thankfully, the DEATH NOTE pictures are pretty good.

More later.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Forgotten Movies: Fantasia Edition - Harry Cleven's TROUBLE

As I get ready to board the Amtrak bound for Montreal and the Fantasia Film Festival this Saturday morn, a major feeling of excitement always takes over me. While I usually drive up, circumstances (i.e. auto repairs) are forcing me to take the train out of NYC this year, which actually isn't too big a deal, though it's adding an extra 3 hours to the trip. Still, I always look forward to the drive simply because upstate New York is rather beautiful this time of year and I suppose seeing it by train should also be a nice pleasure (I'm guessing). I'm not really one for traveling long hours (the only thing about traveling I'm not find of - bring on teleportation, please), but for a trip to Fantasia it's all going to be worth it because I know I'm going to see a lot of good friends, make some new ones, relax, have some fun and see some great movies and some not so great movies. My Fantasia average is about 15 films in the space of a week (give or take) and there's a spot of burnout around the middle of the week, but I'm often able to maintain that pace and am always more than happy to do so. I wouldn't say that I live for this stuff, but to do all this surrounded by good friends in a wonderful town like Montreal is definitely my idea of a vacation.

I've seen so many films at Fantasia over the years that it's not even funny, a few of them classics in the making (RINGU, SHAUN OF THE DEAD), some of them rock-solid and some of them I've just forgotten about. But there have been a lot of good ones that have fallen through the cracks, pictures that played the festival circuit but never got picked up for North America. One of those pictures that sticks out for me is Harry Cleven's TROUBLE, from Fantasia 2005, not necessarily because it's a great film, but because this is an absolutely rock-solid, intelligent and gripping foreign film that also happens to be completely commercial. It's a twins movie, an opportunity for one actor to play two roles, but Cleven isn't interested in doing things too easy. TROUBLE is DEAD RINGER by way of DEAD RINGERS, something conventional (one twin's good, the other's bad) but done in a manner that is equal parts entertaining and intelligent. Cleven (who co-wrote the script, attended the screening and is a super nice guy) is interested in telling a story about the true nature of a man and how the sudden appearance of a long-lost twin can bring out rather unexpected elements of a person's character, but he wants you to feel you got your money's worth. Family man and photographer Benoit Magimel (superb in both roles) discovers upon the death of his mother that he has a twin brother he never knew of, who turns out to be charming and sweet and charms everyone he knows. But he also suspects that his new found twin is looking to take over his life or is it just paranoia? I'm going to leave the plot description to just that, but let's just say that TROUBLE goes into some very interesting directions while remaining first and foremost a thriller that should enthrall (yes, I used the word "enthrall") any average viewer.

TROUBLE really has a lot going for it. Like I said, Magimel is just outstanding in both roles, playing each brother distinctively, but not so much that others would catch on if one were pretending to be the other. The fear that the lead brother he plays has when he suspects his new brother is taking over his life feels very real, and he doesn't play the other brother as some kind of prototypical movie evil twin. Admittedly, the plotting will not always provide surprises, but what really kills you, what truly puts this movie past good and into something else, is the ending. Certainly, I'm not going to give it away, but it's got one of those endings where you just sit there and say to yourself, "God DAMN!". It's a ballsy thing that Cleven comes up with and when it happens your respect for him and the film shoots up considerably. TROUBLE may not always be the most unique twin movie, but when that ending occurs, you know it's set itself apart.

Big time kudos also have to go to Vincent Mathias' cinematography and the FX that bring the two Magimel's together, which are subtle and don't call attention to themselves, like good FX should. Just thinking about all this, it pains me to think that there isn't any outlet with which you, the reader, can find TROUBLE; although there's a French DVD, there are no English subs on it, so unless you speak French, you're kinda screwed. This is the kind of foreign film that most small distributors used to seek out because it had some commercial possibilities, but I'm wondering if a market exists for such films anymore. It should, and yet TROUBLE is still without U.S. distribution, which is a shame. Maybe some day I'll be able to point you in its DVD direction, but I'm still glad I saw it and I'm grateful to Fantasia for showing it. Let's hope this year's crop yields many that are just as good.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"I Don't Think I Do" - Anton Corbijn's CONTROL

I am most certainly not the target audience for CONTROL, Anton Corbijn's biopic of the late Ian Curtis, lead singer and songwriter for the Brit post-punk band Joy Division, and that shouldn't matter. If a film is good, if the filmmakers tell their story in a manner that doesn't necessitate a prior knowledge to the characters and situations at hand, all that stuff is pointless. There are certain situations where I've walked into a film based on some kind of series (like HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS) with a lot of backstory to them and I wasn't especially enamored of the cinematic results, but there are also examples where the opposite of that was also true. I can't think of any offhand, but you know what I mean. Sometimes that stuff helps, sometimes that stuff hurts, sometimes it doesn't matter at all. And in the case of CONTROL, it doesn't matter at all, because it's an excellent film.

My knowledge of Curtis and Joy Division was basically "Love Will Tear Us Apart", "Dead Souls" and that's it. I later learned that New Order came from the remains of Joy Division, but I don't really know too much New Order, either (though I guess I know more of them than I do Joy Division), but again, that's it. Though, as I'm sure many of you know, there are countless number of Joy Division fans out there and their music still sells in some capacity to this day and I'm sure many of them can't wait to see the film. I have an interest in the post-punk era of Brit rock, though Joy Division has been completely off my radar. Truth is, I've always associated them with bands like The Cure who I don't really dislike but don't really seek out. CONTROL helps to change that; I liked the music I heard (all of it performed by the actors) and was especially impressed with how it's presented in the film itself, much of it as a counterpart to what was going on in Curtis' life and mind. A lot of it is handled as matter of fact, in concert footage and recording studios, but it all helps to drive the music home and its inclusion is occasionally quite powerful, especially when "Love Will Tear Us Apart" comes on. It's a pivotal moment when it does and could have gone either way, but it hits you like a punch to the heart and kudos to Corbijn for handling it so damn well.

The same can also be said for the rest of the film, however. A longtime photographer and music video vet, Corbijn has done a very impressive job on his first feature and I suspect that this is the start of a directorial career worth watching. He really seems to understand the cinematic medium and stays away from the music video style and simply concentrates on Curtis' story. The film is quiet and intimate (especially for a rock bio) and it feels like this is exactly the right way to approach this story. It stays away from a lot of the rock movie cliches to tell the story of a man wracked with guilt over an extramarital affair and despondent over fame and illness, while also focusing on those he loved and the people in his life. As Corbijn portrays the story, it rarely leaves the quiet suburbs of Manchester for the big city and in those scenes it's shown as a peaceful (if unexciting) place to live. Corbijn has cast it all beautifully, with Sam Riley memorable as Curtis, Samantha Morton excellent as his wife and a wonderful Toby Kebbell as Joy Division's manager, Ron Gretton. But best of all is that CONTROL is also one of the most beautifully shot films in recent memory, all done in beautiful widescreen black & white that is simply stunning to look at. For all of the brouhaha about digital photography and whatnot, it's a pleasure to see that good old b&w film can still kick major ass on the movie screen.

So it turns out the Weinsteins have control of CONTROL and I pray that it doesn't get cut up to make it more accessible because it's just fine as is. If it can grab the attention of this Joy Division newbie then it probably will with others, so just let it be. Congrats, Corbijn.

Friday, July 6, 2007

That's Right, A Penis Gun - The 2007 New York Asian Film Festival

The last two weeks have seen a flurry (a flurry, I say!) of activity for me, what with my Austin jaunt (did I just link to myself? Yes I did), friends visiting from England, the July 4th holiday, and on top of that, the New York Asian Film Festival, which is about to wind up this weekend. Since the Subway Cinema guys (who organize this crazy fest) are friends of mine, I feel obliged to attend, although I'd go even if I didn't have to, since I'm interested in seeing most of these films to begin with. The festival's move to the IFC Center in the west Village was welcome not only because the seats were so damn comfortable (maybe a little too comfortable, as I dozed off during one show) and the projection actually good, but because it was also a 10 minute walk from my workplace and another 5 minutes away from the PATH train home to Jersey City. Ah, the joys of convenience. I couldn't always make my schedule work in order to see all the films I wanted to (I missed I'M A CYBORG, BUT THAT'S OK), which I'm fine with because there's always Fantasia.

As I sat down to view the new South Korean action flick CITY OF VIOLENCE, a friend of mine who helps to program the festival said, "If this were made 20 years ago, it would have starred Patrick Swayze", which he was trying to make sound like a compliment, but it also described the film in terms that are a bit too literal, as CITY OF VIOLENCE is kinda silly and I wasn't really having it. It's actually more than a little too derivative of A BETTER TOMORROW, which isn't the first film to do so, but it did kind of stick out to the point of deterrence. Really more of a martial arts film than a gunplay epic, it takes the old standby of a group of old friends who reunite when one is murdered years later. Of course one of the friends will turn out to be the one to have done it and of course there will be some spectacularly bloody vengeance against them along with some talk of friendship and brotherhood. CITY OF VIOLENCE has all of the proper elements in place and delivers big time when it comes to the violence part, but too often I felt like I'd walked down this road before. Originality isn't its strong suit and logic isn't part of the plan, either, but I have to say that once the punches and the kicks start flying, this picture is very good at doing all that. Of course, you also have scenes where entire gangs of about 100 or so are defeated by just two men and that's just a little too much. Yeah, the fights are cool, but you know what isn't cool? Ripping off better movies. I know I sound like a killjoy for saying it, but it's true.

DYNAMITE WARRIOR, on the other hand, is also totally ludicrous, but it's played like a cartoon and because of this it works. The current wave of Thai martial arts films have proven to be tremendously fun thus far, with the magnificent BORN TO FIGHT taking top honors, and DYNAMITE WARRIOR (which actually opened theatrically today in advance of its DVD release later this month) is another good one worth your time. I'd recount the plot, but it's really all just a bunch of silliness and the fights and action scenes are truly the film's excuse for being and DYNAMITE WARRIOR justifies its existence very well. It's all just one giant piece of insanity that's here to make you laugh and have some fun. I should also point out that DYNAMITE WARRIOR is just as much a comedy as it is an action film (though it's not a spoof) and the comic aspect of it is what really helps it out. Many of the other Thai action films I've sampled, like the Tony Jaa stuff, doesn't really have a lot of humor, although I've seen some pretty good Thai comedies (like CITIZEN DOG and SARS WARS), so the combo of Thai comedy and action makes for a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of a movie. Maybe it isn't as perfect as a Reese's, but it's tasty like one and smile-inducing, too.

The midnight showing of Nam Ki-woong's NEVER BELONGS TO ME was only the first indicator that this one was going to be more than a little nutty, but it didn't quite prepare you for what you would eventually see before your eyes. If you viewed the NYAFF trailer you'll have noticed the inclusion of a "Penis Gun" in there somewhere, and that comes from NEVER BELONGS TO ME; what's fascinating (if such a thing were possible) is that the penis gun not only becomes a key plot point, but also gives it an element of tragedy that makes the film more than just weirdness (think about some of the implications of having a gun for a penis would be and then tell me it's not tragic). I don't mind admitting that the film doesn't really make a lot of sense, but I also don't think it's bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. Nam is trying to make a statement about relationships and how one person can make another feel used and insignificant (at least I think that what he's going for) and he does it by going in an extremely unusual route. Confusing as it sometimes might be, NEVER BELONGS TO ME is never dull or pretentious and it's also occasionally very funny, sometimes sad, even erotic and it's a hard one to get out of your head. I was reminded of some of the Miike films from the early part of the decade, like VISITOR Q and GOZU that pushed the envelope without losing its sense of purpose and I suspect we might well be hearing from Nam Ki-woong again on these shores.

Another South Korean bust was CRUEL WINTER BLUES, another picture that I wanted to like more, and certainly liked parts of, but couldn't get 100% behind simply because I felt I'd seen it before. A gangster goes on a stakeout in order to kill another gangster, befriends the gangster's mother and when the time comes to actually do the job, he finds he has a soul, after all. This kind of formula usually works and like I said, I liked certain things in the film, but CRUEL WINTER BLUES felt too familiar to win me over. The actors are all very good and the film has a comfortable small-town feel (almost Canadian in a way, and I mean that as a compliment), but it never felt fresh, never made me want to go with it any more than I did. It's not generic and by no means a bad film, but the familiarity of the material simply did in any chances the film had in winning me over. I wish I liked it more than I did, but I also wish it were better. Them's the breaks.

Another festival highlight was the screening of Omar Kahn's ZIBAHKHANA - HELL'S GROUND, but professional conflicts keep me from reviewing it here (yes, even here). It was preceded by a wonderfully insane 20-minute clip reel of some of the highlights of Pakistani cinema that is some of the best stuff I've seen on a big screen all year. Bravo, boys.

Monday, July 2, 2007

And So, As It Must To All Men, Death Came To Joel Siegel

Growing up, all of the New York TV stations had film critics: Dennis Cunningham on WCBS, Katie Kelly (later Pia Lindstrom) on WNBC, Stewart Klein on WNEW (now WNYC, the Fox affiliate), Jeffrey Lyons on WPIX (now the CW affiliate), Judith Crist (then Pat Collins) on WOR, and Joel Siegel on WABC. Thanks to his quick wit, Stewart Klein (who passed away in '99) was always my favorite, even though he tended not to like many of the blockbusters I grew up with. I liked Kelly (also no longer with us) and Cunningham, never warmed up to Crist or Lindstrom, hated Collins, and thought Lyons was worthless (still is). But Joel Siegel, who passed away last Friday, was always a favorite of mine growing up because his reviews were usually a bit more comical and therefore a bit more kid-friendly. He also had an enthusiasm for movies he liked that the others didn't; I can remember his reviews of the hits of the summer of '81, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and SUPERMAN II, seriously stoking the flames of my desire to see those films (although I certainly wanted to well before then). He really loved those movies and several of those big films of my youth and did so in a way that made me relate to him. As the years went on and my taste in movies expanded, I found myself in disagreement with Siegel more often than not, and seeing him quote-whoring on a lot of fairly crappy mainstream movies always made me cringe (especially when the quotes were really whorish), but I would often see him dis other films that the rest of the quote whores overdid their praise of, so he wasn't a complete tool of the major studios. I may not have always agreed with him, but the guy was honest about what he liked and I'm not going to argue with that.

With the news of his death comes a slew of information about the man that I simply had no idea about: that he was a civil rights worker back in the 60s and knew Martin Luther King, Jr. personally; that he wrote jokes for Robert Kennedy and was at the Ambassador the night RFK was killed; that he and Gene Wilder started Gilda's Club, a center for cancer survivors (right next the NYC's Film Forum); that he was nominated for a Tony Award for writing the book of the musical The First, about Jackie Robinson; that after being diagnosed with cancer he became a tireless advocate for cancer reasearch and awareness. I knew of the book he wrote for his young son (born just as he finished his cheomterapy treatments), Lessons For Dylan and that he battled cancer, but the depth of Siegel's life I had no idea about until just now, after his death. The saying goes that it's not how long you live but rather how much life you put into your time, and while I'm sure that Joel Siegel would have appreciated some more time, the guy really did a hell of a lot living.

Siegel's story is inspriational in a lot of ways, not just for all his accomplishments, but because he swam against the common perception of what a film critic is, that of a person who does nothing but sit in the dark all day and then bitch about what he sees. In fact, you might even wonder why, with all of his accomplishments prior to becoming a critic he would even want to be one, but for about 30 years he stayed with it and at the same time living a life that had a lot of ups and a lot of downs but still had a lot going on. I never formerly met the guy, but I would see him at screenings in NYC from time to time (not at the infamous CLERKS II one, though) and think to myself, "That's the guy I used to watch on TV growing up". Now I wished I had stopped to chat with him once or twice because it turns out that reviewing movies was actually the least interesting thing about him. Here was a guy who could tell you about some important moments in history that he witnessed first hand, some important work he was doing on behalf of cancer awareness, and he could talk movies. As his passing proves, you've got to take these opportunities as life presents them to you because they may never come again.

Farewell, Joel Siegel.