Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween Greetings From Tim Curry!

(Originally written for another blog, but not posted because someone else beat me to the punch. UPDATE! They posted it anyway. Hey, it's good enough to get posted twice.)

So I get an e-mail from my pal, Monsters HD VP Jason Bylan, saying "Greatest Halloween Video Ever". Knowing Jason as a guy who can find some interesting stuff on the web, I click on the link and see Tim Curry performing "Anything Can Happen On Halloween" from the 1986 TV movie The Worst Witch. I'm guessing Jason's never seen it before, but he think's it David Hasselhoff bad, and while I wouldn't go that far, it does walk the line between cheesy and stupid pretty well.

But it reminded me of two things: One - Tim Curry is awesome. Even if he's doing a silly number for a kid's TV movie, he's still Tim Curry and he gives it a style and flair that few other performers can. And Two - Tim Curry and Halloween go hand-in-hand. Thanks to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tim Curry will always be as much a part of Halloween as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and his Dr. Frank Futter remains one of the great horror characters of all time. Maybe The Worst Witch isn't all that, but so what? It's Halloween, and as Tim Curry says, anything can happen!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

You Don't Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre - Juan Piquer Simon's PIECES

Over the weekend I participated in an event of geekery that should probably come as a surprise to no one to knows me. Along with several of my best friends, I drove down to Philadelphia for a 24 hour horror movie marathon hosted by Exhumed Films at Philly's International House; Exhumed has been doing classic horror screenings in the South Jersey/Philly area for 10 years now, so this show was as much an anniversary celebration as it was a Halloween event, although as Halloween events go, this one was pretty god damn up there. The films screened (which were not revealed until the moment they began) were a solid mix of 70s and 80s favorites, from legitimate classics (HALLOWEEN, PHANTASM, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, ALLIGATOR, HELLRAISER) to gore faves (DEMONS, GATES OF HELL, BURIAL GROUND) and camp (GODZILLA VS. THE COSMIC MONSTER, BLACULA, the TVM DON'T BE AFRIAD OF THE DARK, DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, TEENAGE MOTHER), all of them on 35mm (some prints are faded, sadly), with trailers and shorts to liven things up in-between shows. I don't mind revealing that I dozed off during most of BURIAL GROUND (which I had seen at a previous Exhumed show several years ago) and DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (I know I wasn't alone there), but stayed up throughout the show for the most part and made the 2-hour ride home OK with no problem. I caught up on a lot of sleep afterwards, needless to say, but it was all worth it, not just for hanging out with friends and seeing wonderful horror films on the big screen, but because the experience also introduced me to one of the most amazing horror films I've ever seen in my life, a film so unbelievably incredible that I can't forgive myself for having never seen it before. That film? Jaun Piquer Simon's 1982 slasher epic PIECES.

Oh. My. Fucking. God.

You know, maybe I should be glad that it took me this long to get to PIECES. I'm sure I could have appreciated it in it's oh-so-very special way at any point in the years before, but to see now, especially as part of this Exhumed marathon, made it really, really special. To start, the print they had was excellent, so it looked good, and there was a very loud and appreciative crowd that was sitting there watching the film with me, and the roar of a good crowd can certainly help most any movie. Added to this was the fact that Scooter McCrae was sitting behind me, giving the occasional shout of "Greatest movie EVER!!!", which is something I cannot argue with. But in the end it's the movie itself that you're really watching and PIECES is a stunning piece of work. It's not "good" by the traditional standard, but it also feels almost like an extremely clever parody of the slasher genre, though you know it really isn't. Perhaps the filmmakers decided to camp it up, but no matter what, the result is astonishing, a near-perfect melding of camp, crap, and gore. It's exactly what you think it is.

This is a film that wastes no time in getting down to being amazing. In the opening scene, a little kid hacks his mother with an axe because she caught him putting together a "dirty" puzzle of a nude woman. Years later, a college campus is plagued with a series of murders; all of the victims happen to be women, though I believe that profits, not misogyny, is what's on the filmmaker's minds, so I don't think you can really take offense. So PIECES then follows the standard plotting of the slasher films of the era, but it keeps coming up with surprises, though they're idiotic and moronic surprises than anything else: lines of dialog like a cop saying, "Right now we're just buying clothes without labels and trying them on for size"; a cameo appearance by Bruce Le that is offensive; ridiculous, over-the-top gore and last, but not least, an incredible exploitation movie cast: Christopher George, Susan Day George, Edmond Purdom, Paul L. Smith, and Jack Taylor. A part of me wants to easily call PIECES "So bad it's good", but I don't really feel that entertainment this good is in any ways bad. I'll just call PIECES an incredibly fun and incredibly stupid piece of work and leave it at that. If you can find it, make it your Halloween viewing this year and laugh your ass off. You won't regret it.

PS - There is a DVD in release right now, but it's nothing more than a bootleg. DVD rights are owned by Grindhouse Releasing (who I think supplied Exhumed with the print), but they haven't announced a release yet. Get with it, Muraswski!

PPS - I feel I should also mention that PIECES was produced by Dick Randall, producer of many a terrible movie, whose story was told by the brilliant blokes at Mondo Macabro. You can check it out in, uh, pieces here, here, and here.

PPPS -

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Forgotten Movies (Halloween Edition) - DRACULA'S DAUGHTER

I was part of the last generation of kids who grew up watching the old classic Universal horror films on broadcast television, and by the end of their regular TV run the films had been delegated to public TV (which was happy to have them) as opposed to the broadcast channels that had hosted them for so many years in the past. That was actually better for all concerned, since WNET, NYC's longtime PBS station, would air the films uncut and uninterrupted and often in blocks of two on weekends, meaning classic late-night double features on Friday and Saturday nights. It was during the summer of '81 (a memorable summer for me) that I dove in to all of these films (most of which I'd already seen, of course) and became a fan for life. The later films mostly became run of the mill fodder (precursors to today's many lame genre franchises), but the early stuff from the 30s remains some of the best cinema you're ever going to see, genre or otherwise; experimental, expressionistic, even self-expressive, and I'm not just talking about the two James Whale FRANKENSTEIN pictures, either. Edgar G. Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT is still a brutal shocker; Karl Freund's THE MUMMY, though pretty dull, is full of remarkable imagery; and though its script falls short at the end, Rowland V. Lee's SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is a more-than-worthy follow-up to BRIDE, which is still one of the all-time great films. But when revisiting the Universal horror cannon, the film that sticks out today and is a more than pleasant surprise is Lambert Hillyer's DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, a surprisingly mature and touching work that, though rarely spoken about, is one of the very best in the Universal cannon.

I had no real memory of ever seeing DRACULA'S DAUGHTER back when I was young, so when I got around to revisiting the Universal films on laserdisc around 1998, this was the one that stuck for me big time, because it wasn't your run-of-the-mill Universal film by any means. As the title implies, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER is about Marya Zeleska, the daughter of Count Dracula (beautifully played by Gloria Holden), and from the very first scene this one sets itself apart from many other films of its type (and from most any horror film of the era) by establishing the monster as a fully sympathetic character. She hopes her father's death will "cure" her of her vampirism and allow her to lead a normal life, and if there's one thing that we've all learned in vampire movies throughout the years, whenever vampires think they can cure themselves, it's a damn good shot that such is thing is only going to stand a snowball's chance in hell of happening. Though she finds herself falling in love with a mortal, her vampyric desires (and the intrusion of her servant Sandor, played by future DESTINATION MOON director Irving Pichel) end up getting the better of her. And I think you can guess that things may not end too happily.

For a picture that's only 71 minutes, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER is pretty damn rich in content; It's well-paced, the performances are among the best in the Universal genre films, the script is surprisingly intelligent and adult (it questions whether Marya is really a vampire or just delusional, and the psychiatric profession is respectfully regarded as a possible "cure" for her), the characterizations are much fuller than many of the other Universal films, and it's a very classy production in all regards. It's also rich in another manner: Lesbian subtext! The film is actually famous for it (clips were featured in THE CELLULOID CLOSET) thanks to a scene where Marya seduces and hypnotizes a half-clothed girl, and the scene works on every level. It's shocking, it's erotic, it's disturbing and over is easily the highlight of a really good picture. Beyond even that, many have come to speculate that the "cure" Holden seeks isn't to being a vampire but to being a lesbian, but it's to the film's post-code credit that never once is she seen as a villain, but a completely sympathetic (though tragic) character who the audience is to care for, if not root for, throughout. Lugosi's Dracula was never seen like this and it's a big plus to the film, as Marya remains fascinating to the audience (or at least the audience of me) all throughout the picture.

I was saying to someone the other day that vampires are so overexposed that they aren't really scary any more, but the good ones can be haunting and DRACULA'S DAUGHTER is indeed a haunting piece of work. I know that the film's reputation has grown more in recent years and it would be nice to see it continue so that more and more folks would pick up on this fine film. Needless to say, it's perfect Halloween viewing, especially if you're into old timey horrors and you want something that won't scare you in the traditional sense but will stay with you for a while. You can't say that about all of the Universal horror films, but you certainly can here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fantastic Fest: Garth Jennings' SON OF RAMBOW

Is there any other genre of film more reviled than the "feel good" movie? Probably not. About 90% of the feel good movies that come out (and sadly, it's a flourishing genre) are pretty much LCD kinda movies, films made more for those who want to take the kids to see something without being embarrassed than for anyone who actually wants to leave a theater feeling good about themselves and society in general. They're basically stories about someone (be it a human or an animal or a human with an animal) overcoming adversity in one form or another and they're more often than not pretty god damn awful. Hooray, we've won the big game or saved the teen dance center or whatever! I could honestly care less.

But sometimes, it has to be said, those kind of pictures do work. It isn't easy, but when they do, it's incredibly impressive. Who knew ROCKY BALBOA was going to turn out as well as it did? I mean, what an awesome movie that was, let me tell you. And it worked soooooooo fucking well that it almost single-handily wiped away the memories of ten years of awful Stallone movies (save for COPLAND); on top of all that, it made you feel good, because like the original film, it had a back story to it, of Stallone's own struggle to retain his self-respect as much as it is for the lead character's. Those feel good movies that work do so mainly because these characters are ones that you can relate to whose struggles are often ones you yourself can identify with. So a Fantastic Fest screening of Garth Jennings' SON OF RAMBOW, a film about two U.K. pre-teens who desperately want to make their own sequel to FIRST BLOOD circa 1983 would seem to have a theater full of folks who would identify with the characters than most regular audiences would. But even thought that seems like an easy score, the fact is that SON OF RAMBOW earns its warm, fuzzy, upbeat feelings due more to solid storytelling skills than just playing for an easy crowd. Pretty much anyone can like this one.

The first thing about that helps make SON OF RAMBOW work is that the emotions feel genuine. The set-up sounds a lot like several other movies (two kids, often ostracized by those around them, are missing father figures in their lives and need someone, especially a friend, to help fill that void) but Jennings (who also wrote the script and based it on his own experiences) wisely doesn't sugarcoat it or try to pander too much to the audience. While the film is ultimately sweet, it doesn't get there by having everyone be happy all the time; the characters are flawed and a bit neurotic (they're kids, after all) and believable, for both the period and the way kids behave. I was especially pleased in how SON OF RAMBOW was really more a film about these two kids and not a movie about how great the early 80s were. It isn't some sentimental fanboy movie (which it easily could have been), it's just a comedy and its subject matter just happens to be two kids who want to make a Rambo movie and escape their drab lives, and trust me, that's very commendable. The film is also quite funny (always a plus, never a minus), especially in a subplot with a French exchange student who becomes the most popular student in school and worms his way into the Rambo film. And the two leads, Bill Milner and Will Pulter, are both terrific, each of them charming, funny and completely winning and they really make the movie. Also endearing it to me was how it didn't trivialize the Rambo character; as the film takes place before the release of the second film (where he went from "John Rambo" to just "Rambo") he's looked upon as more of a movie hero than the (admittedly really fun) cartoon character he was to become. I liked that.

So oddly enough, SON OF RAMBOW, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year, won't be hitting screens either here or abroad until May of 2008. Obviously the release of Stallone's better-be-good-if-he-knows-what's-good-for-him RAMBO this January is having a say in that, but I can't help but think that a few year-end awards might be in the offering if they were to get it out earlier, but what's done is done, I guess, so you're all stuck waiting 7 months to enjoy this. I plan to lord that over all of you until then.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Announcing The Dick Miller Blog-A-Thon!!!

I've never participated in one of these before, but I've got no problem starting one up: Headquarters10 announces its first-ever Blog-A-Thon, this time celebrating the greatest of all character actors, Mr. Dick Miller! In a career that's spanned over 50 years, he's worked with everyone from Scorsese to Cameron to Spielberg and has made every Joe Dante movie just a little bit better by gracing them with his presence (and they were already good to begin with). He co-wrote T.N.T. JACKSON, directed an episode of MIAMI VICE (unless there's another Dick Miller out there I don't know about) and made all our lives richer by just being Dick.

Seriously, think of all the terrific movies Dick Miller's been in: ROCK ALL NIGHT, NOT OF THIS EARTH, A BUCKET OF BLOOD, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, THE WILD ANGELS, THE STUDENT TEACHERS, TRUCK TURNER, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, PIRANHA, THE HOWLING, ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, 1941, THE HOWLING, GREMLINS, THE TERMINATOR, AFTER HOURS, EXPLORERS, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, GREMLINS 2, MATINEE, among many others. If there's anyone out there who deserves a day of fan worship, it's Dick Miller. Trust me, he's earned it.

So let's take this opportunity to appreciate this wonderful actor with his very own Blog-A-Thon on Tuesday, December 18, one week before his 79th birthday. I would have made his birthday the date for the Blog-A-Thon, but I don't think anyone's going to want to post anything on Christmas, you know?. So let's take this opportunity to say "Thanks" to a guy who's never quite gotten the recognition he's very richly deserved. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

She's Not A Girl Who Misses Much: Julie Taymor's ACROSS THE UNIVERSE

When I was in Austin a couple of weeks ago (you're sick of hearing about it, I know), I was present at a very late-night karaoke session (the bars in Austin all close at 2am, but the biggest Karaoke joint in town is open until 4am - strange, or what?) with Juan Antonio Bayona, director of THE ORPHANAGE (good, but overrated) and many others (Nacho Vigalondo had gone back by this point). Early on in the proceedings Bayona took the mic to warble his way through The Beatles' "Yesterday"; already fairly drunk off his ass (thanks to a very enthusiastic screening that night), he took the opportunity to take several pot-shots at Julie Taymor's ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, which had just opened and I'm guessing did not endear itself to him; among the replacement lyrics were "I hate ACROSS THE UNIVERSE/That fucking movie sucked/Don't see ACROSS THE UNIVERSE/Now I hate/Julie Taymor". Obviously not a fan.

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is pretty much a love-it-or-hate-it movie and there's a lot of vocal parties on both sides of the issue. I would say that everyone loves The Beatles, but I actually know one or two folks who are not fans (like Scooter McCrae), but for the 99.99999% of intelligent society, The Beatles are a very precious and important thing and how those songs are represented are sometimes just as important to them as the songs themselves. YELLOW SUBMARINE = great, while SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND = bad, and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE seems to be falling somewhere in-between. I'm going to place my name into the "lovers" category for this film, as I'm in admiration of Taymor's approach, her style, the look, the casting, and the fidelity to the spirit of the music and times that the film represents. It doesn't necessarily add a new appreciation for the songs or allow you to see them in a whole new light, but it serves as an important reminder (and you definitely need to be reminded of this every now and again) of their wonderfulness.

One of the first things that I think needs to be said about ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is the unacknowledged debt it owes to Milos Forman's 1979 film version of HAIR, an excellent film in its own right. The plotlines are basically the same (simpleton comes to NYC in the late 60's and meets up with a group of hippies) and both films are not just odes to the music of the era, but the era itself and its spirit of freedom and rebellion. Though Forman's film is much more impassioned, Taymor obviously believes in her film's message and this accounts for a lot; a lesser, more contemporary director would use this opportunity to sell themselves and show off the latest digital tricks at their disposal. Taymor does this, too, but for her it's about bringing her ideas to life and creating an artistic whole and not about what kind of tricks she can pull. Her ambitions are genuine and sincere and that means something, especially when you're talking about these particular songs. And as for the songs themselves, they're used pretty well, I'd say; I was especially enamored in the early going by the use of "Hold Me Tight", since the early stuff never seems to get the respect the post-Rubber Soul songs do, and the only song I felt didn't quite mesh in with the plot was "With A Little Help From My Friends", but that was also from the opening reel, so it didn't hamper things too much. Outside of that, I felt most of them fit in just right and that there wasn't much that was missing from the mix (no moments of "They should have placed 'Think For Yourself' in here").

Credit Taymor, too, for her casting all around; every role seems just right and even the cameos (Bono, Eddie Izzard, Salma Hayek, and especially a brilliant Joe Cocker) add to the mix. Leads Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood are both appealing and sing very well, and I suppose I should mention the lovely Dana Fuchs as Sadie; I actually know Dana a little, as she is an old friend of my friend Jen Lui (a.k.a. Mrs. Outcast Cinema), and it's great to see her get such an excellent part that really showcases her talents as an actress and singer, so here's hoping that this leads to big things for her from here on out. Further kudos go to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and if I forgot anyone else, I'm damn sorry about it.

So, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is sputtering along out there, not getting as big a release as I think it deserves, but it seems to be getting by with a little help from some word of mouth (I saw it at a fairly full mid-afternoon matinee) and it would be nice to see it catch on. Stranger things have happened and especially considering all the behind-the-scenes crap this film has gone through, having it make some dough would be a happy ending for all concerned. Obviously, it's a must-see for Beatles fans, but film lovers owe it to themselves to see something unique out there (especially coming from a major studio), so if you see it and you like it, tell somebody.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Belated Birthday Greetings To Sir Run Run Shaw!

Hey, it isn't every day a cinematic legend turns 100 and is still around to appreciate it, so in honor of that (and for the re-release of BLADE RUNNER, which he presented "in association with"), let us celebrate the 100th birthday (actually last Tuesday) of Sir Run Run Shaw of Shaw Brothers fame with a selection of trailers to some of the Shaw Brothers classics. These say more about the man's legacy than I ever could.

Enjoy!

MY YOUNG AUNTIE


SUPER INFRAMAN


THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN


36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN


Don't you want to watch all of them right now?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fantastic Fest - Nacho Vigalondo and TIMECRIMES

Every film festival has a breakout hit (or at least thinks they do), a little unheralded film that take everyone by surprise to become the hit of the fest and for this year's Fantastic Fest it was Nacho Viglalondo's TIMECRIMES, which was celebrating its world premiere here prior to its much bigger unveiling at this year's Sitges Film Festival in its home country of Spain. This was another title that Tim League had tipped me off to previously, but I wasn't really listening hard enough because I passed up my first opportunity to see it on opening night in order to see FINISHING THE GAME (which I enjoyed) instead. Once it was all said and done, the buzz kept flowing and TIMECRIMES' second screening the following Tuesday was becoming one of Fantastic Fest's hottest tickets. More than that, Nacho (a 2004 Academy Award nominee for his short film 7:35 IN THE MORNING) was in attendance and proving himself to be one of the festival's best guests, too; a funny and charming guy who obviously didn't take himself too seriously and was as much a fan as anyone else there. Then there was his killer karaoke rendition of "I'm Too Sexy", but let's talk about the movie first.

What's interesting about TIMECRIMES is also what keeps me from going gaga over it like a lot of others have. With a title like that, you've got to guess that TIMECRIMES is about time travel, and you would be right, bucko. Like a lot of people, I'm a bit of a sucker for time travel stories, as they're a great way to combine sci-fi/fantasy with human drama, since that whole "what if?" aspect to it is undeniably intriguing to most everyone. What if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, or what if you could go ahead it time and see the future, all that kind of stuff is usually a great hook for an audience and most time travel stories are like that, attempts at tackling the big questions with big spectacle. Even some of the smaller, more intimate time travel stories, like BACK TO THE FUTURE, have that human interest part down pat. What makes TIMECRIMES different is that it doesn't play into that, as it's the story of an accidental time traveler that doesn't go too far into either the past or the future. It isn't about the fate of the world or changing history, it's about one man who makes some mistakes he needs to rectify and finds things getting more and more difficult. I'm not going to give you any more than that, since it's best to walk into the film without much of an idea of what to expect, but no one steps on a butterfly during the prehistoric era, you dig?

So while it's an intriguing hook, I also found it to be problematic because it seemed to me like there wasn't all that much at stake with this little time travel adventure. Certainly, Vigalondo piles on a lot of obstacles in the way and the film doesn't exactly end with everything wrapped up in a tight little bow, but I wasn't sure I was able to identify with one guy's time travel problems. He certainly goes through a lot and much of it is dramatic in nature, but I wasn't super intrigued by all of it. I'm thinking one of the things that's holding me back is a lack of identification with the lead character, who's played very well by Karra Elejalde; I applaud Vigalondo for casting a regular Jose like Elejalde, but I never felt like I knew the guy well enough to care all that much about the corner he was being painted into. Relate, sure, because no one would like to end up in a fucked-up time travel situation like this guy is, but I wasn't quite as sucked in by it all as I feel I should have. Probably says more about me than it does the movie or Nacho's abilities as a filmmaker, but I just felt that there should have been something more (too many notes...). TIMECRIMES is a clever mousetrap, no question, a well-made and intelligent little movie that at least doesn't insult the audience with any kind of stupidity, but I feel like something's off. Doesn't mean I didn't like the movie, because I most certainly did, but it wasn't the best film of the fest for me. But Nacho Vigalondo, the human being, I love dearly.

Throughout the fest I kept seeing Nacho and his girlfriend/producer, the oh-so-lovely Nahikari IpiƱa, and would say hello and make small chit-chat, but after Monday night's now-famous Fantastic Feud trivia competition (won by some pathetic loser) and karaoke event, Nacho proved himself to be quite the boon to humanity. He was one of the very first to rock the mic, stunning the crowd with his Spanish-accented version of Right Said Fred's ode to self-appreciation, "I'm Too Sexy" ("I'm too sexy for my hhhhcat/Too sexy from my hhhhcat/What you think about thhhhcat?"), followed by his now-legendary "Swastika Dance", he was the hit of the after-show and the man everyone wanted to duet with. It was an insane session of karaoke and drinking and to say it was the true hit of the fest is the understatement that turns all other understatements lame. The following day, I began to see Nacho as the man who made Fantastic Fest 2007, and a mutual appreciation society briefly grew, briefly only because he was leaving the following day. Although I'm missing Sitges right now (it ends on Sunday), I'm hoping to see him again on these shores at another fest, be it AFM, Philly, Fantasia or someplace else soon. Fantastic Fest may have discovered TIMECRIMES, but more importantly it was Nacho Vigalondo who was also discovered here and I'm hoping he lives up to the talent he's displayed thus far.


(Nacho and Tim League)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fantastic Fest: PERSEPOLIS and DAI-NIPPONJIN

One of Fantastic Fest's most exciting aspects are the Ain't It Cool News' Secret Screenings, which preview some of the bigger upcoming fare without any pre-show buzz or anticipation. This is always a positive, because if you don't know what you're going to see then your preconceived notions won't overtake your perceptions of the film as you're watching it. It's also a plus because the Fantastic Fest crowd can also take this opportunity to spring something on the audience that they might not otherwise be expecting, which is just what happened with two of this year's screenings, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's PERSEPOLIS and Hitoshi Matsumoto's DAI-NIPPONJIN. Those who were expecting to see 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and THE MIST were no doubt sorely disappointed, but only at first.

PERSEPOLIS came with a pedigree (it's based on a well-regarded graphic novel and won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes) but I'm sure that wasn't enough to mask the disappointment some must have felt when the title was first announced. It may have been animated, but it's in French and it's about Iran, so how good can it be? Turned out PERSEPOLIS was one of the finest films of the entire fest lineup and is one of the best films of the year thus far. Interesting thing about it to me was that it could have been made as a live-action feature (though filming in Tehran might have been a little tough) and may have been an equally good film, but to make it into an animated feature does make the film much more special (in a good way). Like Satrapi's graphic novel that the film is based on, it's an autobiographical first-person witnessing of Iran's Islamic Revolution of the 70s and 80s and a coming-of-age story of someone who feels like they don't belong in either their own home country or abroad. It's a very sweet, charming, often funny and heartwarming film (genuinely heartwarming at that; you really feel for these characters) and certainly an eye-opener to most of us westerners who don't really know Iranian culture. It's fascinating to learn about the attitudes of Iranians both pre-and-post-revolution and how things like secret parties where women don't have to cover their heads and buying western music on the black market were part of the norms of living, along with fear of the Revolutionary Guard. It's very refreshing to see a story about real Iranians (even if they are animated) and the attitudes of Iranians towards their own country and government, but it also gives you the impression that Iran was (and still is) the hippest place in the Middle East. It's also got a great look (faithfully re-creating the look of the graphic novels) by being mostly in black & white (with some color) and the animation, is impressively simple and not flashy, proof that you don't need to do Pixar-esqe CGI to make a quality animated film. Hell, if it wasn't for RATATOUILLE I'd call PERSEPOLIS the best animated film this year, but it certainly deserves to be nominated in that category at this year's Oscars, no doubt about it, and I found it to be one of those rare, impossible-to-hate kind of movies. I must give props to Harry Knowles and the Fantastic Fest team for picking it as a secret screening, since I'm not too sure it would play to a packed house otherwise and especially since the audience certainly liked what they saw. It really is the best kind of movie surprise.

A surprise of another kind was DAI-NIPPONJIN, the Secret Screening that played later the same night as PERSEPOLIS, since the film was a last-minute addition to the program just a few days before the fest started, but mainly because almost no one in the audience had heard of the film before. It did play in the Midnight Madness program at Toronto just a week or two before, but it didn't get a lot of attention there, so it seemed to still be under people's radar. I knew about this one because Fantastic Fest big daddy Tim League told me about it a few months earlier when he'd seen it at the marketplace at Cannes (it also screened in the Director's Fortnight) and wouldn't stop raving about it. The premise sounded delicious: A mockumentary about one of the lower-level giant heroes of modern-day Japan (think Ultraman) and how, despite saving Japan from various giant monsters, he's seen as a nuisance and is despised by the public. I've long said that you can never underestimate the appeal of giant monsters, but I suppose you can underestimate the appeal of giant hero satires, because this one wasn't really doing it for everyone for the bulk of its running time. In his introduction, Tim mentioned being a big fan of the film's writer/director/star Hitochi Matsumoto's work, but I have to confess that I'd never heard of him prior to seeing the film (apparently, he's huge on Japanese television) and I have to say, the guy really does have something. I think it helps to know going in that the film's sense of humor is a) bizarre and b) dry. We're talking my sister-in-law's attempt at cooking Thanksgiving turkey dry, which, lemme tell ya, is pretty fucking dry. And I have to admit, it made the film a little difficult to get into at first. I was certainly amused by it, had some good chuckles and understood that he was mocking much of Japanese culture, a point driven home by the fact that I was sitting next to my friend Marc Walkow of Outcast Cinema, a major Japanophile who was busting a gut. It's not a film that finds its own groove, you have to fit into it, and even if you know and love this stuff (and I most certainly do) you've got to work with the film in order to really start getting it. But find it you do and then, once you think you've caught up with it, the film does a complete 180 degree turn in its last 15 minutes and what you see before your eyes is something truly off-the-wall and very, very god damn funny. I'm not going to even begin to describe it, but it's delightfully weird and it won over a big bulk of the audience based just on that alone. DAI-NIPPONJIN is a movie that you can't really recommend to everyone, but it's a film that does its own thing and that makes it not only unique, but original, too, and you certainly can't fault that. Magnolia has picked it up for the U.S., so it probably won't get released here until late 2008 going by their standards, but if you have a taste for the truly offbeat, you'd be hard pressed to find anything quite like it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Fantastic Fest: Richard Kelly's SOUTHLAND TALES

Big, ambitious movies that succeed are wonderful things because when someone takes a risk that pays off, you're happy that their hard work is being properly rewarded. But big, ambitious movies that fail (even fail miserably) are in some ways more intriguing, because they usually contain a lot of good ideas and are made with a certain amount of intelligence but can't quite get their shit together. It can be a matter of too many cooks spoiling the broth or one cook stirring the pot for so long that the flavor is sucked out, but such pictures can be fascinating for what they didn't get right than for anything they did. They're not always "car wreck"-type pictures, but they're sometimes greeted as such and occasionally they're either later regarded as camp classics (MYRA BRECKINRIDGE; CANDY) or they eventually find an appreciative audience (1941; HEAVEN'S GATE). And a few of them even go on to be re-appraised as being ahead of their time and classics of cinema, such as BLADE RUNNER, which is currently on re-release. Ambition can make up for a lot when a movie fails overall; you can't hate it, can't discard it, you've got to give the film props for not wanting to be like other movies, even though it's not really good enough to succeed on its own terms.

I think you can tell where I'm going with this.

Richard Kelly's SOUTHLAND TALES is a mess. Dense and unfocused, over and underwritten, lacking in subtlety and heart, it's really all over the place in ways that no major movie has been in some time. Certainly not lacking in ideas or scope, it feels like a BBC mini-series that should be 6 hours long but instead lasts 2 1/2. It's a massive stew made of beef, carrots, potatoes, broccoli, liver, donuts, pepperoni, chili peppers, Marshmallow Peeps and Captain Crunch... well, you get the idea. It demands you pay strict attention to everything that's going on (which is never a bad thing), but when a film is almost all plot, plot, plot, even the smartest of us can get lost. Before the film started, Fantastic Fest founder Tim League announced to the audience that if they had to go to the can then they should go now, because the film was long and if they left at any point they might get lost when they return. You make an announcement like that, it should really come across as a warning of sorts (and knowing Tim, it may well have been) and though I confess to having to make wee at one point, I doubt that was the reason I wasn't quite getting it all down. To quote The Beatles, it's all too much for me to take.

But within the parameters of this (or I would think any) review of SOUTHLAND TALES, I have to take my hat off to Kelly simply for attempting such a massive project in the first place. It's always possible that 25 years down the line we may all be talking about what a misunderstood masterpiece SOUTHLAND TALES was, so let me cover my ass a little and applaud Kelly for shooting for the moon while so many other films barely even try. You wish you liked it more, wished that it worked and that you could say that your patience was rewarded by film's end but that just isn't it, I'm afraid. In attempting to tell the tale of the end of the world in 2008 Los Angeles, Kelly has truly bitten off more than he can chew; he's got ideas, theories, and creative impulses that work only in spurts and don't make for a cohesive whole. The film is one part drama, one part science fiction, one part satire, one part action and none of them are satisfying. Allow me this one example: Dwayne Johnson (who's very good here) plays an action movie star who suffers from amnesia who shacks up with Sarah Michelle Gellar, a former porn star. Johnson's character is actually being used as a puppet by two sides of the political spectrum who want him as a spokesperson for their cause (both of which have become radicalized due to further terrorist attacks in the U.S. and extensions of the Patriot Act). Throughout the course of the story, he becomes involved with time travel, political assassination, crooked cops, Mandy Moore (OK, that part's not so bad), suicide bombings and a barrage of other events that are simply too much for one movie, much less one character. Johnson's performance is actually pretty brave in that he also takes chances and isn't afraid of looking silly, even stupid, but for someone who is supposed to be the center of the movie, it's impossible to truly embrace his character if he's always being shuffled around. He's the hero, we get that much, but by film's end how much do we actually know about him? I honestly don't know. There's a lot of that throughout SOUTHLAND TALES.

So the film's failings are in all the big stuff, but there are small surprises throughout and people who enjoy seeing insane movie casts will find SOUTHLAND TALES to be their film of the year. I always love it when two actors of differing types share the screen and here we get Johnson opposite Zelda Rubenstein, Christopher Lambert with Cheri O'Terri, Wallace Shawn and Bai Ling all among the wild combos. Certain scenes work very well, such as a pair of musical numbers (one of which has Justin Timberlake lip-syncing to The Killers), enough to bring you back into the film's groove and appreciate, even if it is for a short period of time, what Kelly is trying to do. And I have to respect him for at least trying to address our post-9/11 world in a manner that attempts to entertain as well as intrigue, but if he had found a way to reign it all in (even after he continued to edit after his disastrous 2006 Cannes screening) he might have truly had something. What's he's got is basically like another DUNE, although not as good; something too big and sloppy to pin down but too much movie to dismiss. A disappointment? Sure. But I'd take this kind of disappointment over standard movie mediocrity any day of the week.

PS - I happend to be sitting next to Kelley at our big festival excursion to Smitty's in Lockhart before the movie and spoke to him for a bit. Very nice fellow, and he seemed to take the film's more-subdued-than-usual-for-an-Ain't-It-Cool-News-screening reaction fairly well.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Fantastic Fest: Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle nearly scared me from books for life. At the age of 16, my reading consisted solely of magazines and the occasional none-too-taxing book like Dracula. But when assigned the Sinclair novel in my junior year of high school, Joe Russo, my high school English teacher, asked me to “Just read the fucking thing” (yes, using those words) in order to keep up with the rest of the class, but also because I’m sure he’d thought I’d like it. It was an incredibly tough read for me, as I found the subject matter to be amazingly depressing (which says more about me than the book itself), but I finally slogged through it anyway and then stayed away from books for about another dozen years, after a friend convinced me how much I would dig James Ellroy’s American Tabloid (which I most certainly did). I don’t really read as often as I’d like (usually just on the train to work every morning), but I go through a couple of books a year and maybe one of these days I’ll get to The Jungle again. A long time has passed and perhaps I now possess the maturity to grapple such an overwhelming story, though I suppose it might help if I had Joe Russo riding my ass once again.

Sinclair was an incredibly prolific novelist but not much of his work has been adapted for the screen (although Disney later turned The Gnome Mobile into a musical!), so when Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD, based on Sinclair’s novel Oil!, was announced, I was interested to see what such a film would be like. I didn’t know Oil! from a hole in the ground, but Anderson has been (I think) one of the most challenging filmmakers of the last ten years and the material seemed like something that could take Anderson to a new level as a filmmaker. Hearing that Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor who is slowly rising to the ranks of the all-time greats, was going to play the lead it seemed like THERE WILL BE BLOOD could be Anderson’s shot at greatness. So as I went in to Austin for Fantastic Fest, the rumors were rife with news that BLOOD would be one of the Ain’t It Cool News “Secret Screenings” to be peppered throughout the fest, which seemed to make sense to me, especially since I knew that Fantastic Fest founder Tim League just had Anderson as a guest for a Rolling Roadshow of BOOGIE NIGHTS back in July. And it was not long after I got off the plane when I learned that BLOOD would indeed be showing as the closing night film, so I knew it wouldn't be long before I got another sampling of Upton Sinclair in my life.

As it turns out, THERE WILL BE BLOOD only takes the first third of Sinclair's novel about the birth of the oil industry in America and then spins off into its own realm, but what's especially shocking is that the film is like nothing Anderson has done before. Much of the Anderson style is not in evidence, except for his excellent use of Panavision lenses and an offbeat (but entirely fitting) score from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, but it's also not like he's channeling Robert Altman (to whom the film is dedicated) or Stanley Kubrick again. Like with Romero and DIARY OF THE DEAD, this is a progression for Anderson and it's a pretty stunning one, too. I've liked all of Anderson's films thus far and I had high hopes for BLOOD, but what I got was something unexpected and a true knockout of a movie. The audience reaction at Fantastic Fest was raves all around and I never heard a single negative or even lackluster opinion. While there is already much talk about the film's status in the Oscar race (where I believe it will be at the forefront, for sure), more importantly, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a new classic, one that 50 years from now we'll all still be talking about and watching. It's terrific all-around, as satisfying as you want most any film to be.

The first thing you have to remark on when discussing the film is the incredible performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in the film's lead. There are very few moments in the film where he's not on screen, but when he's there he's mesmerising in every way. Like his work in GANGS OF NEW YORK, Lewis could have chewed the scenery like crazy, but he plays it smart every second of the film and gives us a multi-dimensional character who is kidding himself that he has a soul when he does not. He's a tragic character, but his downfall is also very much of his own making and watching him unravel is fascinating in the extreme. Lewis is nearly matched by the excellent Paul Dano (a dead ringer for the young Harry Nilsson) and the dynamic between the two of them is at the heart of the film, two characters who utterly despise one another and would have nothing to do with one other if it wasn't for the fact that they absolutely need each other. Their relationship comes to such a head that the film concludes in one of the most memorable closing scenes in most any film I can think of in the last few years (which I will not reveal here). Hell, the film even ends just right; that's how good this picture is.

While putting this piece together in my head I was stuck as to where I might find anything critical about the film and I searched and I searched but I honestly couldn't find anything negative to say about it. I'm not quite saying that THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a perfect film, but damned if I have anything bad to say about it. I loved the cinematography; I though Kevin Anderson (finally away from Stephen Sommers and able to appear in a real movie again) was also excellent, and on and on and on. As DIARY OF THE DEAD was a superb start to Fantastic Fest, THERE WILL BE BLOOD was a likewise superb ending, as well. Prepared to be incredibly impressed once it hits theaters December 26.

Fantastic Fest: GEORGE A. ROMERO'S DIARY OF THE DEAD

If there was one film I was most looking forward to seeing at Fantastic Fest, there was no question it was going to be George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD. I can’t begin to describe how much Romero’s work means to me, and DAWN OF THE DEAD is the gold standard to which I hold all other horror films up to. It was the first genre film I ever saw that I felt was set in the real world, one whose characters and actions I could completely relate to because they came from the same working middle class world I did. A recent theatrical screening of DAWN (my first) showed that despite some of the film’s numerous technical flaws (a number of out of focus shots and most of the zombie makeups) it still held up as a genuine American classic, a rare horror film with scope, imagination and ingenuity that is still remarkably potent today. The subsequent follow-ups (1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD and 2005’s LAND OF THE DEAD) are both fine films (DAY gets even better with age) but not quite the masterworks of DAWN and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. So like many, when it was announced that Romero was going back to the well with the quasi-BLAIR WITCH approach on DIARY OF THE DEAD, I was somewhat apprehensive about it. Could Romero really do it again? Did he actually have more to say or was this a quick cash-in? And hasn’t the overload of zombie films lately taken away whatever power they all once had? Valid questions all, but once the Fantastic Fest opening night screening finish I knew it was silly to have worried at all, as DIARY OF THE DEAD is an absolute triumph. Romero has not only reinvented his zombie series, he’s also reinvented himself and has made his finest film since MONKEY SHINES and his best zombie film since DAWN OF THE DEAD. I fucking loved it.

The first thing that threw me off about DIARY OF THE DEAD was the narration. The film is presented as a documentary about the beginning of the zombie plague called THE DEATH OF DEATH; a group of student filmmakers are shooting a horror film in the woods of Pennsylvania when the outbreak occurs and the footage we see (all of it firsthand POV) becomes part of the doco, so when the narration hits, it’s important to remember the “student film” context Romero is putting his film in. Because of this, certain parts of it comes across as a bit pretentious, but the film also knows this and is partially having a wink with it all, too, letting the characters speak for him and by film’s end it completely works. What proves to be a bit more difficult is in establishing his characters like he’s done in previous films, since he’s presenting it all in more-or-less “real time” it isn’t easy to make all of his characters to be 100% believable, so some of them feel a bit more like caricatures and it’s a considerable speedbump. But once the shit hits the fan it all gets moving very quickly and by the halfway it’s almost all forgotten, thank god.

So by this point I’m pretty much going to forgo discussing the rest of the plot, not just because I don’t want to give away anything but because it isn’t exactly necessary for me to do so. But I will say that once the film is on the road, Romero begins to take the film in directions that I was not expecting, and with that you see that he’s also venturing out into a lot of new territory for himself. Extended single takes, matter-of-fact (but still juicy) deaths that will probably give him some MPAA problems (hooray!), use of real world anarchy footage (Hurricane Katrina, the L.A. riots, anti-war protest, Iraq) show him to be a revitalized filmmaker completely back in touch with his independent roots and love of filmmaking. The result, for me, is absolutely euphoric because here is one of my idols getting back to where he once belonged (hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best) and knocking it out of the fucking park. Romero hasn’t shown this much vitality in years, almost decades, and I was so happy seeing him happy again that DIARY OF THE DEAD became an unusually uplifting experience, proof (to me), that at no matter what age an artist can reinvent themselves with such abandon that they can cause joy in their audience. It is more than likely that most of you won’t feel the same way about DIARY as I do because you’re not Romero worshipers like I am, and that’s perfectly fine. But at the very least, try to keep all I said in mind when you eventually see the film (and I don’t think there’s any question that you should) and see it for yourself. Understand that much of what makes DIARY OF THE DEAD so great isn’t that it’s got zombies and lots of killing, or its wit, fine acting (especially from lead Michelle Morgan) and social commentary, but because an important American filmmaker has found his voice again. Because of his independence and genre roots, Romero has never been lumped in with the film school generation of Scorsese and Coppola, even though he’s totally an equal to them as both an artist and a statesman. But with DIARY, he proves himself to be the Charley Varick of movie directors, the last of the true independents, and it’s a pure joy to watch him work. George A. Romero is perhaps the most underrated American filmmaker of all time and DIARY OF THE DEAD proves why he’s also one of the very best. Welcome back, George.