Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fantastic Fest Horrors: Jon Hewitt's ACOLYTES and Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS

I don't know who it was who coined the phrase, "I may not know art, but I know what I like", but whoever they were they sure made it easy for plenty of us who may not quite understand the inner workings of true art to cop out real easily. Some people may look at something and say it's art and others may look at it and say it's garbage, while those of us stuck in the middle, the ones with an average or slightly above average intelligence who can't really reason why we like something, simply say that we just do. You don't have to necessarily have to understand Tarkovsky or Bunuel fully to enjoy them, you know?

Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS is easily the most talked-about Eurohorror film of the year, and if were to be seen by more people here in the U.S. it probably will get a bit more attention than it's currently getting. The genre crowd certainly know what it is, but it's being pretty much ignored by the mainstream press, despite a midnight slot at Toronto, though I'm willing to bet $5 that it will turn up at next year's Film Comment Selects at Lincoln Center. But within the genre scene it's been the subject of some intense debate, with some saying it's just another torture movie, while others are calling it one of the most profound horror films ever made. And then there's me, in the middle of both arguments: While certainly intense and incredibly gory, MARTYRS does have something on its mind, something to say, though you have to go through a gauntlet of serious horror to get there. The torture horror sub-genre (I refuse to call it porn) has been the whipping boy of most horror haters over the last few years, but like most things that push the envelope, if someone knows what they're doing with it then whatever they want to do is pretty much justified, as long as there truly is a purpose. Miike's AUDITION is the perfect example of this, a film that goes as far as it does for a reason, though that doesn't make it an easy watch, while the numerous lesser titles in this subgenre (the titles shall remain nameless) just do this stuff because the filmmakers have no real imagination or intelligence. So MARTYRS takes a while to get where it's going and a lot of people are not going to want to stay with it; I myself was eager to get to the point, because there truly was a lot of rough stuff and no matter if you know it's all fake, it's never easy to sit through. So when the point is made, my reaction is, "OK, I'll go with that". It's not "Oh my god, that's so amazingly profound. What a masterpiece!", or "How stupid and pretentious can you get? Fuck this shit!", it's just, "OK, I can go with that". I was down with it, I felt it was an interesting idea, an interesting approach, I appreciate the idea and the concept, but I'm not doing intellectual backflips. MARTYRS goes somewhere where a lot of horror movies don't usually go, but in doing so I'm not 100% convinced that Laugier is the Robert Bresson of the horror genre; I give it a lot of points and respect, but I'm also not thinking that my life has been changed. Is Laugier so many miles ahead of me intellectually that I just don't know it? I am so dense that I don't really "get it"? Or is MARTYRS just a good movie - smart, well-made, and exceedingly well acted and respectable - but not the end-all-be-all of the horror genre? I'm sorry, but I don't know. I do know that I liked the movie, that I recommend the movie providing that people know that they're in for a tough time for a while there, and that the haters are looking at it wrong. But it is art? Is it profound and possessing an intensity that makes it something truly special? I don't know, but I know what I like and I liked (but didn't love) MARTYRS. However, please allow Blake Etheridge and Rodney Perkins to convince you that I'm wrong. You can see for yourself when it hits DVD here on February 24.

In a sense, it's a good thing to have a more straightforward film like Jon Hewitt's ACOLYTES around, because a film like this is a lot easier to take while it's also quite admirable in its more modest ambitions. ACOLYTES doesn't aspire to the heights that MARTYRS does, it merely wants to tell a story and provide some suspense, and it does that very, very well. And I should say that the film does have something to say about the effects of abuse, but it's not trying to be MYSTIC RIVER, it's just trying to do its own thing. To me, the great thing about it is that it has a hook, a killer of a plot point that - providing it's working for you - sucks you in all the way through to the end. ACOLYTES is actually just a really smart mainstream movie, one with a lot of intelligence behind the camera as well as on the screen, and that's what I dig about it. It's a smart thriller; it keeps you guessing, it puts the characters and the audience through an ever-shifting maze that keeps you on your toes, and when it's all over you admire it for that. ACOLYTES is slick and stylish, but smart enough in the filmmaking and storytelling to not let that overwhelm a solid little story that sucks you in pretty easily. Hewitt (a real nice guy and very much a Fantastic Fest cheerleader) has been around a while (I remember liking his shot-on-video vampire opus BLOODLUST back in the mid-90s) and it feels like he's hitting his stride now and deserves to be someone to watch. He's got a really good eye, a solid sense for storytelling, is good with actors (the three teenage leads are all quite natural, while the villains of the piece are appropriately sleazy), and understands how to keep you on your toes. But all in all, what really put ACOLYTES over for me was the hook, the plot points that made you think it was going one way, then went another and you're not sure how it's going to resolve itself. Not a lot of movies can do that right, so all the more reason to respect ACOLYTES for getting it down so well. I know that the film has U.S. distribution (though I'm not sure it's been announced, so I'll just shut my trap on the for the moment) and I hope that you get to see it soon, because it is worth a look. Maybe it's not as deep as MARTYRS, but MARTYRS isn't as slick and entertaining as ACOLYTES, and there's nothing wrong with one not being the other. There's room for everything, you know.

PS - I can't finish this piece without saying this: If anyone has any plans to make a Gram Parsons biopic, all they have to do is teach ACOLYTES lead Joshua Payne to sing like him, because god damn if the kid isn't a ringer for the guy. Strap a nudie suit on the kid and watch the Gram fans lose it. That's all.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fantastic Fest Horrors: Darren Lynn Bousman's REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA and J.T. Petty's THE BURROWERS

There are those who view Fantastic Fest as strictly a horror film festival, when the last few weeks of reviews should prove to you that we're obviously anything but. We love our horror, no doubt about it, but we're not horror exclusive. Still, what kind of a genre film festival would we be without horror films, and as the largest genre festival in the U.S. we certainly had the pick of the crop this year (and yet they still wouldn't let us screen REC). Either way, it's been a good year for the genre, with one absolute masterpiece (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) and some solid stuff scattered about the disastrous remakes that are killing the genre at the box office. I haven't seen all of the horror films screened at the festival yet (got a stack of screeners to plow through), but of what I did see I have to say that they've all been interesting at the least and damn good at best. Since we're in the Halloween home stretch, there's no time better than the present to dwell on the horrors that is... Fantastic Fest!!!

Of all the horror films I saw at Fantastic Fest this year, Darren Lynn Bousman's REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA is perhaps the least successful at what it's trying to accomplish, but it's trying to accomplish so damn much that I have to respect it. Combine two of my favorite genres - horror and musicals - and usually you get something great out of it, like PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW or the more recent SWEENEY TODD, but for all its ambitions, REPO! still doesn't muster much beyond decent. It's a rock opera with an emphasis on the opera part, not just in that everyone sings their dialogue but in that the story is one of human tragedy, hidden desires, family secrets, and melodrama sandwiches. Which is all fine - as it should be, pretty much - but what there isn't is much drama or suspense to it all; in the end, REPO is a little too respectful to the opera genre, and as such it's also too predictable. I saw where it was going from the start and couldn't muster up enough enthusiasm to really get behind it. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't have its moments or its better qualities. There are about four really good set pieces with good songs to go with them, and during those sequences I felt what I thought REPO! should be, something with more energy and electricity than it already has. It's also a great piece of eye candy, perhaps a little too Hot Topic mixed with BLADE RUNNER for some people's taste and not 100% original, but there is always something worth looking at and it certainly keep your eyes glued to it. It's also a very well cast film, without a single bad performance, and that means, yes, I'm also talking about Paris Hilton here. It has to be said that she's actually pretty good and she certainly commits herself full blast to it, so no matter what you think of her, you've got to give her credit for the work. Same is true for Sarah Brightman, the queen of the suburban concert halls, who likewise knows damn well she's in a horror film and doesn't care what the housewives of Westchester think, and to Anthony Heald, who is actually the best performer in the film who really needs to commit himself to more musical projects. The fine work of the cast and the obvious devotion of the crew makes me wish that I liked REPO a lot more than I did, but in the end I don't exactly wish I owned the soundtrack so much as I think I'll download a few of the tunes. Still doesn't mean I can't admire the hell out of it for trying so damn hard to be something out of the ordinary, and its place on the Fantastic Fest schedule was certainly deserved.

A much more successful genre melding can be found in J.T. Petty's THE BURROWERS, an outstanding piece of work and second only to LET THE RIGHT ONE IN as the best horror film of the year. THE BURROWERS is not only an excellent horror film, one that understands that feeling of dread and hopelessness that the truly greats have, but also an excellent western, one that works hard to deconstruct the myths of the west while still showing great love and respect to the genre. These are my two favorite genres, so I may seem a little predisposed to liking this one, but I don't really fucking care, because I like what I like and I damn well like THE BURRORWERS a hell of a lot. And that really is what makes it so effective is that it's a superb melding of the two genres; it's scary because it's set in the old west, at a time when the land was still a vast unknown and there was a tremendous amount of ignorance and superstition running things, but because it's a western it's also not going to meld into a typical horror creature feature that gets dumber as it goes. Writer/director J.T. Petty (a real smart, super nice guy who is getting better and better with each feature) is obviously a guy who not only understands both genres, but he's not a slave to either; he's telling this story not because he wanted to make a horror western, he's doing it because he wants to tell this story and tell it in this manner, and he's very much on target throughout. One thing I particularly loved about the film is the locations he used (it was shot in New Mexico), because it certainly looks like few western locations, very fresh and beautiful, but at the same time it's unsettling for that same reason. It feels like virgin territory that you're traveling through, so you feel it's quite possible that some monsters might make their way up from the depths of the earth to attack you, and that's a good thing for the film. Petty is going for a Terrence Malick meets early Pekinpah look (Phil Parmet was the cinematographer) making it one of the more unique-looking horror films of recent years, but once again, I have to stress that he does this not at the expense of the horror, but rather to enhance it. So add to all this an excellent cast with a wonderful performance from the great Clancy Brown and THE BURRROWERS is one of the best of Fantastic Fest 2008 and one of the genre greats of the past few years. Of course, it's not going to get much of a theatrical release (the distributor is dumping it), but it deserves to be seen under any circumstance. THE BURROWERS is a much-see for fanatics of both genres.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fantastic Fest - Natasha Arthy's FIGHTER and Prachya Pinkaew's CHOCOLATE

No one likes getting kicked in the face. I'm lucky enough to say that it's never happened to me, but I've seen it happen and I know it's not pleasant. The meeting of foot and face is anything but a harmonious one, and all it does is bring about a lot of pain. Seeing it on the big screen, however, is often an unrivaled cinematic joy. I can't explain why, but I sure love seeing people kicked in the face in movies. It's not that it's an unrealistic thing - like I said, I've seen it happen - but it can be a very cinematic thing, like a dance move that only an Astaire or Kelly can properly accomplish, and it makes its point very succinctly. I must admit, I likes the kicking and punching a lots.

Two of this year's Fantastic Fest features both contain inordinate amounts of kicking, and both of them are enjoyable for that reason alone. But one of them is a little bit better, and that's because it's got heart, while the other one has entertainment value simply due to the kicking and punching. Natasha Arthy's FIGHTER has gotten comparisons to THE NEXT KARATE KID for some reason, probably because no one else can seem to think of another martial arts film with a young female protagonist, while we just happend to have two this year at Fantastic Fest. FIGHTER is unquestionably the better of the two, but what makes it good is not the kicking (which is just fine), and the martial arts, while certainly an important part of the equation, is not the film's reason for being. FIGHTER was one of four Danish films to screen this year (nothing we had planned, but it ended up being a good year for Danish genre films) and the fact that it's Danish would make one think that it's going to be off-kilter and silly, but like that Swedish vampire movie, it turns out that its country of origin is one of the strongest things about it. Actually, FIGHTER deals with matters of nationality and identity better than most any Hollywood picture ever would, telling the story of Muslim Turk Semra Turan, a headstrong young woman with a passion and skill at martial arts who struggles for acceptance from her own family and fellow Turks. As Muslim women are not supposed to learn martial arts (and especially to study a physical activity in the same class as men), this becomes the heart of the drama, because you really understand just what eats her up inside. This is a true struggle of identity and not just mere martial arts phooey like, "you killed my master" and it works very well. Following her heart and staying true to herself carries a very deep price, not only for her but for her family, too, and combining the martial arts with the Muslim aspect makes FIGHTER all the better. But Arthy's real secret weapon is Turan, just terrific in the lead role and a true star in the making. In additon to being god damn gorgeous and an excellent physical performer and martial artist, Turan also hits all the right notes in the dramatic category, and without her FIGHTER would not be as good as it is. Admittedly, FIGHTER hits a lot of the same notes that films of this type do (she has to win the respect of her teacher; she has to hide her training from her parents; she falls for a boy in the class, ect.), but with Turan in the lead it feel fresher than it has any right to, so bless her for it. I also thought it was interesting in how we got to see the plight of a Muslim family in Denmark (where, as we all know, there have been some serious conflicts), and that element felt much more organic and essential to the story's success. The film is also very serious about martial arts as a positive influence on this young woman - another plus - but too many of the martial arts scenes are done to annoying techno with fast cuts that undercut the drama. But in the end I suppose it doesn't matter, since what we see works so well otherwise, making FIGHTER an honest-to-goodness uplifting film that earns the uplift. A very nice surprise.

Less of a surprise is Prachya Pinkaew's CHOCOLATE, one of the most anticipated films this year by the geek crowd, and I'm sure they got what they wanted out of it, which was the kicking and the punching. Pinkaew's previous pictures, the Tony Jaa starrers ONK BAK and TOM-YUM- GOONG (a.k.a. THE PROTECTOR), were famous for their kicking (justifiably so), and if all you want is kicking, then CHOCLATE is your movie. But like FIGHTER proves, if you've got some heart in there with your kicking you can accomplish a lot and CHOCOLATE is, in the end, basically about kicking. As such, it does the kicking incredibly well and is fun to watch for that reason alone, but yeah, I wished there was more. Like FIGHTER, it features a female protagonist (the incredible Yanin Vismistananda, who Pinkaew created the part for), and some great martial arts, but as CHOCOLATE is really nothing more than a fantasy it doesn't resonate in anywhere near the same way. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the two films (why did we have to show them in the same year, Tim?), but FIGHTER proves that martial arts alone are not what's going to make your movie worth watching. CHOCOLATE's plot is a pretty standard revenge thing and the lead character's autism its only the only original aspect, but that actually takes away from whatever emotional connection the film could have made, since it's difficult to relate to her. Vismistananda's martial arts skills are outstanding in every way (she trained for two years for the role) - she's certainly what makes the film worth seeing - and the action climax certainly does deliver just on an action level. But with just martial arts alone watching CHOCOLATE is like eating a lot of chocolate: tasty and sweet, but unfullfilling and packed with empty calories. Listen, I've very much enjoyed some of the other Thai action films I've seen (Panna Rittkrai's BORN TO FIGHT got by on insane, jaw-dropping action alone and I loved it for it), but if a picture doesn't click then all you've got is kicking, and a lot of it. It's great kicking, but you could simply get by with a 10-minute YouTube reel and not see the entire movie and you'd be OK. I do loves the kicking, but I need a little something more to give it a bit more, um, punch.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fantastic Fest: Gil Kenan's CITY OF EMBER

It's always a bit distressing when a good film fails to find an audience - because, in theory, good films should always make money - but it's even more distressing when it fails to find both and audience and critics to help support it, and that's what's happened with Gil Kenan's CITY OF EMBER, which is tanking big time when it really shouldn't. The reviews keep going back to the movie's length (only 95 minutes) to insist that it got hacked up in the editing room, and while I did feel like it could have been given a bit more breathing room, it's still a good story that's quite well told. You really feel like you're in this world, and I think it's the realization of the world of Ember that gives the film its spark of life. By realization, I'm not merely talking about the huge, incredibly impressive set, or the costumes or the visual effects (all equally impressive), but realization in how Kenan allows us to see and even understand this world so well. It's only his second feature (after MONSTER HOUSE), but I can already tell that Kenan has the eye that's required to be a great cinematic fantasist, one that combines suspension of disbelief with giving the audience a world that they can touch and feel, which Ember certainly is. I was as taken with the environment as I was with the characters and their plight, and that, to me, gave the film more heft. There's a feeling that Kenan truly believed in this story (I understand he was a huge fan of the book) and there is a passion to be found here, which is what it truly needed to succeed. Many will say that's he sacrificed the story and characters for the sake of the design, but don't believe them; all these things are interwined, and it occurs to me that they've said the same things about Gilliam and Burton and those naysayers have been long proven wrong. Add to that that it's a pretty good fantasy/adventure story, and you've got a picture that can (and should) be taken in by families that are looking for something that will entertain and enlighten both kids and their folks, so it's definitely worth seeing. But if you want to see it in a theater (and you should), you better go fast. Too bad.

Strange thing for me is, I only saw CITY OF EMBER just this past Sunday afternoon, but it's a picture that I've had on my mind for the past few months. One of the worst-kept secrets of Fantastic Fest 2008 was that CITY OF EMBER would be screening at the festival, which it did as our closing night show. It was the last of our secret screenings, though everyone pretty much expected it, since an EMBER ad graced the back of our program guide, while EMBER posters graced our lobby and the EMBER logo was prominently branded on all festival materials (ads, banners, ect.). I have to say that of all my 2008 sponsorship duties, it was EMBER that went how I wanted it to, took the most work and went the best in the end, except for that whole bombing at the box office bit. Having gone through a bit of work on its behalf (not nearly as much as its makers and the Fox Walden folks), I think have a decent understanding of the disappointment they're all going through there.

Given pretty much a wide berth by Fantastic Fest head honcho Tim League, I made a concentrated effort to find sponsors who would appeal to our core audience of film geeks, those being the upcoming releases of movie studios. I got in touch with pretty much everyone (their DVD divisions, too) and spoke to a lot of good folks, but things did not quite go as I really wanted them to. While some gave me a flat-out "no", others would cite budgets or time lines (I started in May and had a mid-August deadline, still not enough for some studios to get approvals), and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't discouraged any. But the good folks at 20th Century Fox saw the light and were extremely supportive; they got what we were all about and said yes when others said no. In talking to one of their marketing reps, I asked about CITY OF EMBER - knowing only that it was a fantasy film that was opening in October - and was referred to the crew at Fox Walden, an in-house sub-distributor for films produced by Fox and Walden Media. The Fox Walden crew also understood the festival's importance, and while it didn't seem like there would be any kind of huge investment, I would have been more than happy just to get an ad for the program guide. And that might have been the case, if it wasn't for the fact that Tim League likes to think big.

One of my biggest grievances about some of the companies I've worked for in the past is how you would suggest an idea to them that cost even a little bit of money, and they always come back to you with a no. The thing about Tim is, he's OK with big, crazy ideas that just sound like fun, like putting a 35mm projector on the back of a truck and showing movies in famous locations. So one's of Tim's big, crazy ideas this year was to hold our closing night party at Longhorn Caverns, a mile-long cave that's now a state park here in Texas. The place is about 60 miles outside of Austin, but who cares? Just put everyone on buses for a 90 minute ride, get some DJs, lots of booze, and you've got yourself a party. In theory, it sounds like a lousy idea, a recipe for disaster, but Tim knew what he was doing. He'd done events there (like a screening of THE DESCENT) and knew that it would be an incredible party, one to remember, one that would be talked about for a long time to come. This idea came to him well before EMBER was a glimmer in his eye, but when Fox Walden was presented with the concept, they got it, too, and with the proper pitch in place they came on aboard as the party's official sponsor, being the start of a unique, one-of-a-kind event to life.

Thing was, no one was quite sure just what would make it even more special. We talked about screening the film in the cave (an idea I pushed for), but that seemed to go against the party concept that Tim wanted, so out it went. We spoke of a bringing in a band, but again, it didn't get very far. Branding the cave with cool lights and whatnot was a given (party co-sponsors Red Bull and 42 Below made sure of that), so we all knew it was going to work as a party, but putting it over the top was what we all wanted. The elephant in the room was getting Bill Murray to attend, but that was an unknown element even to the studio, as they had little contact with him (Murray doesn't have a manager or agent). Gil Kenan was in, we knew that much, but what else? Well, it turns out that was all that was needed, since Gil had Bill's ear. And so it was on Thursday the 11th that I received and e-mail from Heather Philips in Fox Walden's publicity department that Bill Murray was indeed coming to the screening and the party that I knew we were going to have something here. And we most certainly did.

Of course, Bill Murray's appearance was not to be publicized (although we were going to have a camera crew there to patch footage over to Entertainment Tonight), so that became the secret within the secret, which thankfully didn't leak out before the show began. This was the first time I'd ever worked an event where a "star" was involved, complete with security and press and such, and I can easily understand why the likes of Murray don't want to work publicity on their movies, because you suddenly don't become a person, you become a commodity, bandied about from spot to spot until you're no longer needed, gawked at by strangers who take your picture without asking and talk about you behind your back. I also saw what the publicist and press people at work, doing their jobs the best they can in the midst of a sandstorm (and not even that big a sandstorm here), and I saw all the hard work and long hours that went into it. It was a bit disconcerting, but at the same time, that's showbiz, as the saying goes, and even though it's not quite right, that's the nature of the business and there's not much that can be done about it. But like anyone else who throws a big party, when you see people drinking, dancing, laughing and having a good time, you know that you've done your job, and by that account the party was a raging success. Having been there myself, I've got to tell you that it was an incredible party, and even though it was a major pain in the ass to plan and execute, I've got to give Tim props for his vision.

So I'd like to take a moment out to single out some of the folks who made this party so memorable, be they so who busted their ass on it or those who just showed up. There's Tim, obviously, and Henri Mazza, the Alamo's main events planner; the guys from Red Bull (whose names I don't recall, unfortunately) who did a lot of the lighting and the DJ set-up; Daniel Osbourne, the Alamo's roadshow manager, and Josh Jacobs, who set up the video in the cave; the Alamo crew who worked the party as bartenders and the Longhorn Caverns crew who gave us the clearance and worked with us to make the event happen (and never once complained); a huge thanks to Gil Kenan, for getting Bill to show and for making a good film, and to Bill Murray, of course, for coming on down and sticking around to make it an event to remember (sorry about all the douchebag party goers who insisted on getting their pictures taken with you). But the final thanks goes to the Fox Walden folks who understood what it was all about and made everything possible, those being Heather Philips and, especially Susie Hayasaka, who was a dream to work with. I can't stress just how much hard work Susie put into this event, and if it wasn't for her efforts this party would not have been as cool as it was. Thanks again, Susie.

So once more, ignore the reviews and go see CITY OF EMBER. It deserves your support.

Monday, October 20, 2008

R.I.P., You Bad Motherfucker!

It's very sad to hear of the passing of Rudy Ray Moore - the star of DOLEMITE, AVENGING DISCO GODFATHER, THE HUMAN TORNADO, among many others - today at the age of 71. I had the pleasure of meeting Moore and joining him for dinner upon my first-ever visit to Montreal at the 1999 Fantastia Film Festival, and I was quite taken aback by what a kind, soft-spoken man he was outside of the persona we all knew. His films may have gained him a legendary status to a certain extent, but anyone who knew of his work outside of them (or anyone who saw him perform live, like I did back in '99) will know that he was not only a great stand-up comic, but also an accomplished R&B singer and a great raconteur. He was also a symbol of an era in comedy now long gone, that of the dirty joke teller, the kind who paved the way for the likes of Pryor, Carlin and Murphy and whose jokes are still pretty damn hilarious today. He was a fascinating fellow in a lot of ways, and even if DOLEMITE is solely how he'll be remembered, you can honestly say that for someone who made his mark in the world of film, doing so in a movie that's not very good at all is a bit of an accomplishment.

Farewell, Mr. Moore.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fantastic Fest: Nacho Vigalondo's CODE 7

One of the most anticipated events of Fantastic Fest 2008 by pretty much everyone was the return of 2007's golden boy, Nacho Vigalondo, whose film TIMECRIMES was picked up by Magnolia Pictures at the festival (it's finally due to be released in December) and is due for a big Hollywood remake by United Artist. While Nacho wasn't returning with a new film, it was decided that to justify bringing Nacho back (like you actually need a reason) that the festival would show a batch of Nacho's short films, one of which, 7:35 IN THE MORNING, was nominated for a 2004 Academy Award (no foolin'). The Nacho Shorts show turned out to be one of the festival's hottest tickets (both shows were packed) and Nacho proved that he had a mastery of the short film format, with many of the shorts providing (such as CHANGING THE WORLD, which I wrote about back in January) some of the biggest smiles of the entire festival.

But it was CODE 7, Nacho's very own science fiction trilogy (inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick) that stole the show and it might have been the single best thing I saw during the entire festival this year. Endearing himself to me by also claiming that he's no fan of Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (just like me!), Nacho gave us a true science fiction epic in three 3-minute segments that are some of the most thought-provoking, spellbinding, and heart-rendering works I've ever seen in the genre. The Palmer Eldridch/Joe Chip story arc, especially in part 2, outdoes even the greatest of Shakespearean tragedies. This is, without question, a masterpiece, and it is my pleasure to present CODE 7 in its entirety to all of you know. You can thank me later.




Monday, October 13, 2008

Fantastic Fest: Kim Ji-woon's THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD

There's no other way of saying this: THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD is a big ball of fun.

Ever since STAR WARS, many have tried to make films that are simply nothing more than giant bunches of entertainment - the perfect blockbuster, if you will, that throw everything at you in an effort to bring a smile to your face - but so few have succeeded that it's almost become futile to even expect anyone to reach the glorious heights of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or THE ROAD WARRIOR. While not quite in that same classic league, THE, GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (which won the audience award for best film at Fantastic Fest) comes about as close as any movie I can remember in many years and I can't help but tip my hat to it. It's maybe not a perfect mixture of action and comedy, but it's a god damn great one while you're watching it, no question. People will ask me what I liked so much about it, and all I'll be able to say is, "Everything". And yet, that's the right answer.

I do wants to take a moment to focus on the "but..." part of this review, and get it all out of the way so that I can go back to the praise. THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (there's no "and" in there) is pretty much all about fun. It's not an allegory for anything. There's no hidden meaning, no subtext, no deep thought to engage in afterwords, it's just a good time, a real good time. Director Kim does try to sneak something in at the end of the movie, but when you go back and think about it afterwords, you realize that even though there's an attempt at a statement, it's actually kind of hollow because it isn't what the film is really about. Also, the film is a very obvious tribute to Sergio Leone and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY specifically, but what separates Kim from Leone is that Leone always had a point, he always had something to say, and I don't think Kim does. Leone's films are certainly fun, but you think about them afterwords and say to yourself, "OK, I can see how it's a Vietnam allegory" and stuff like that, and you don't here. This doesn't exactly kill THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD as an entertainment, but I feel it's what stops it just short of being a true classic. It will become a classic, no doubt, but a lower-ranked one, I think. But that's pretty much it.

Having said all that, this is such a beautifully realized and executed film that it's going to take someone - anyone - years to catch up to it for sheer entertainment value. The action scenes here are like Spielberg and George Miller at their peak, just incredible stuff, and there's a 15 minute chase scene towards the film's end that is unbelievably outstanding in every way, and it got applause at the Fantastic Fest screening I attended. It looks beautiful, features superb use of the Manchurian desert locations and incredible sets (many of which become spectacularly destroyed) and it moves like an S.O.B., even though it runs over two hours (I gotta say that this one must be seen on the big screen). Kim is also helped immeasurably by the great Song Kang-ho (the "Weird" of the title), one of the great movie stars of our time (he also starred in THE HOST and Park Chan Wook's JOINT SECURITY AREA and SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE) and the glue who really holds it all together. There's a hell of a lot of action and eye candy, but you can't take your eyes off Song, and he's a big part of what makes it all fun. It's funny, I didn't care much for Kim's last two films (the dull A TALE OF TWO SISTERS and the vastly overrated A BITTERSWEET LIFE), but he's knocked it out of the park here. I don't know how that happened, but I'm glad it did.

Other than that, I don't really have much more to say, except that you gotta check it out. IFC Films has it, but they haven't announced a date, though more than likely it'll be early 2009. See it.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Fantastic Fest Fan Fiction: Rain Johnson's THE BROTHERS BLOOM and J.L. Vera's SOUTH OF HEAVEN

The ex-wife of a dear friend of mine had a thing for STAR TREK fan faction. As a Trekkie and would-be writer herself, she had this fascination with what fellow fans would dream up for the TREK characters, especially if they took things into wild directions, like the ones where Kirk and Spock are gay lovers. These kind of things are fascinating and depressing by equal measure, since so little of it is actually any good, but it's certainly of interest to see just what exactly people make of a favorite TV series or movie or comic when it's put into the hands of its fans, because that's when their fantasies really come out into the open. Whether it's finally giving Uhurah the chance to pilot the Enterprise or to find out just what would happen if the characters from The Lord of the Rings visited FANTASY ISLAND, one thinks that their imagination is truly going wild,when in fact their imagination is incredibly limited, since they really didn't create any of this stuff to begin with. If I put my French fries on top of my hamburger, it doesn't make me a great chef, it just means that I'm slapping two favorites together to spice up something I already love, nothing more.

I couldn't help but think of this equation while watching two of this year's Fantastic Fest features, Rain Johnson's THE BROTHERS BLOOM (which screened as one of the Ain't It Cool News Secret Screenings) and J.L Vera's SOUTH OF HEAVEN, which take a fan fiction approach to pulp materials and both come up short. It's very obvious that both writer/directors have a love of the works of writers like Mikey Spillaine, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake and a host of others, and they both work at adding their own personal spins to it, though not quite hard enough. Vera's is more cartoonish, saturating his screen with bright digital colors and very over-the-top violence, while Johnson wants a comical con men fairy tale mixed with a love story. Both are operating on the director's love of this kind of material, along with fantasies of what their ideal pulp fiction-type story would be and neither of them work, though one works much better than the other. I could give them points for wanting to mine material that isn't some comic book or Spielbergian early 80s fantasy flick, but the fact is that neither film is successful in their attempts, so I can't. It's OK to make something in the style of a favorite subgenre, but you can't wallow in its excesses and think you're going to come up with something unique because you're just going to end up looking like a geeky fanboy, albeit one who happens to read.

SOUTH OF HEAVEN is the worst offender of the two, a movie that reels solely of the director's fantasies of what his ideal movie would be, other than the idea of (god forbid) actually entertaining an audience. I would lump it in with all of the Tarantino wannabes of the mid-90s, but the cartoonish spin that Vera puts on it (a very obvious Warner Brothers influence here) separates it from the rest of those, if only slightly. This doesn't excuse Vera for the talkative hit men, serial killers and thieves, though, and I'll tell you all right now that I actually walked out of this one about halfway through. After a certain point I'd figured I'd had enough, though at what point exactly I can't remember, but at about the thirteen monologue in (no joke, though I'm probably not right on the number), I knew I wasn't going to subject myself to this anymore. This thing was not going to improve and I was not going to see the light, so it was best that we part. So while SOUTH OF HEAVEN does not represent the typical kind of fanboy cinema of this days and age, it nonetheless is a movie made only because someone has seen too many movies but doesn't really know how to make a film that is really their own as opposed to making a smorgasbord of their favorite kind of movies. And that's the kind of movie I no longer have any patience for, so include me out.

Much better by comparison (which is still damning with faint praise), Johnson's THE BROTHERS BLOOM is a dangerous balancing act of a movie, an attempt to make a whimsical crime movie, and when was the last time we saw one of those work? Again, Johnson is playing favorites here - a desire to replicate a dream movie in his mind - but unlike his previous film, BRICK, which was a picture that took a subgenre and successfully turned it on its ear, BLOOM just doesn't come together. Johnson is packing in too much here - it's a family story, a comedy, an action movie, a heist movie, a love story, a travelogue, a con story - and there's no real focus, at least none to my point of view. I was with it for a bit, but eventually I was lost in one double cross too many and I started to not care a little after halfway through. The plot isn't really what Johnson cares for, anyway; it's really more about the characters, which is as it should be, but everything is pretty damn predictable, so once you've figured out where that's going to go well before the film actually gets there, you don't really care. The performers are all pretty good - not that there are any bad ones in the bunch - with Rinko Kikuchi offering the real spark of life that the film needs. Even though she only has a few lines, she lifts the film up through sheer presence and I think I stuck with the film mainly because I wanted to see what she was going to do next. She's sensational, and I'd love to see her get an Oscar nomination because she does this all so well that she makes the film a little better than it really is. It's one of those situations where you ask yourself why they couldn't have made the film about her instead of the Brothers Bloom, because she's so much more interesting. Nevertheless, you're glad she's there, and at least as far as she's concerned Johnson's fantasies and my own happen to coincide, so I have no complaints there. As for the rest of THE BROTHERS BLOOM, thanks for giving us this peek at your bookshelf, Rain, but can you go and make a real movie next time, OK?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Fantastic Fest: Kevin Smith's ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PORNO

Kevin Smith has gained a lot of weight. A lot of weight.

I'm not saying this for the sake of gossip, as Smith himself was the first to acknowledge all this when we got on stage after an admittedly stellar introduction (complete with the THUNDER COPS trailer on the big screen at Austin's huge Paramount Theater) at this year's opening night of Fantastic Fest. Having not seen Smith enter the building, I really was more than a little stunned to see just how much he's put on - he's got to be tipping the scales at close to, or over, 300 pounds. Smith quickly addressed the matter by explaining that he's started to smoke pot again on a regular basis, and with that has come the munchies and the weight gain that goes with that. The opening night crowd laughed all this off, but as I sat there watching ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PORNO, I couldn't help but equate Smith's current physical state with what ended up on screen. Bigger than it needs to be (it's 102 minutes but feels longer) and overly talky (not much of a surprise where Smith is concerned), ZACK & MIRI, while certainly amusing at many points and filled with some good laughs, is also yet another trip down the same unambitious road that Smith has been coasting on all decade long. The fans will be pleased, but those of us who saw him as the voice of the SLACKER generation will have to resign themselves to the fact that he has become nothing more than a creative slacker as the years have gone by.

In a sense, the Kevin Smith who made CLERKS is still on display throughout ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PORNO; CLERKS took a "write what you know" approach, giving audiences an idea of the working-class world that Smith came from (0ne not too removed from my own - he's from Red Bank, NJ, about an hour south of where I'm from) and ZACK & MIRI seeks to revisit that a little bit, moving the action to that most working-class of American cities, Pittsburgh (a few Romero jokes and a Romero regular cameo are nice touches). Its leads are two late-twenties longtime friends who find themselves struggling to make ends meet; after attending their 10 year high school reunion, they also realize that they have made nothing with their lives, and once the power and water are turned off, desperation leads to inspiration as the saying goes, and so henceforth the title. With this, the film goes into several predictable places - their porno starts as a STAR WARS spoof and then becomes a workplace porn; Zack and Miri confront their feelings for each other after their sex scene; Zack finds himself motivated to accomplish something for the first time in his adult life, ect. So basically, it's Smith telling the story of CLERKS but with tits, and once again it feels like he's refusing to challenge himself. He mined the unrequited love element much better in CHASING AMY and CLERKS remains one of the great workplace comedies, while this is not, and all of the dick and sex jokes (with some scatological humor being an unwelcome addition) are pretty much what you would expect. When Smith made CHASING AMY, and especially DOGMA, which is still his best work, you felt that he was growing artistically and starting to talk about what he thought about rather than what he was feeling. But ever since then he hasn't tried to do anything other than what would make audiences laugh. As the old PIECES tag line goes, ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PRONO is exactly what you think it is, and that's very disappointing.

With all of that out of the way, I do want to say that ZACK & MIRI isn't a complete washout, because it's probably Smith most polished film, technically, and there are certainly some good laughs. The performers are all fine, and Smith very nicely allows everyone in the cast an opportunity to prove themselves. It's nice to see Smith regular Jason Mewes clean, sober and not doing his old "Jay" act; Craig Robinson makes an excellent second-banana to Seth Rogen and gets some of the film's best lines, while Traci Lords is solid as a dominatrix and current porn star (and all-around sweetie) Katie Morgan proves that, yeah, she actually has some talent and could make it in the world of straight movies if she gets a shot. Rogen is good (likewise does not seem to be stretching himself too far), while Banks proves herself once again as an excellent comedienne who deserves more opportunities like this. It's in part because of the cast that you wish the film was better than it is because you know Smith has it in him to do superior work, but he's not applying himself, he's just sitting there getting stoned. Sure, ZACK & MIRI will probably go on to be Smith's biggest hit to date (he seems to top out at around the $30 million mark) and audiences probably won't be too disappointed, but for me, seeing Smith become so big, followed by seeing ZACK & MIRI, I could help but feel this was a Twinkie of a movie: Kinda tasty, but filled with nothing bu empty calories that are only going to fatten you up, not enrich you.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Cult Classic in the Mistaking.

I was quoted in an ad for the first paid writing gig I ever did. It was a Fangoria Magazine review of Mario Bava's RABID DOGS, which had been released in a limited edition DVD (at a time when DVDs themselves were limited) back in early '98, and no more than a month after the quote arrived than the ad arrived in the next issue of Tim Lucas' Video Watchdog magazine. My Fangoria editor took issue with the quote, only because I got quoted for the first thing I'd ever written for the magazine, and while I've had quotes hit here and there, I've never seen my name on the back of a DVD box. Until now.

Last summer, I saw Chris Stapp and Matt Heath's hilarious THE DEVIL DARED ME TO at the Fantasia Film Festival and loved the hell out of it. I wrote a very positive review here at HQ 10 that I know was seen by the film's producer, Anthony Timpson, who also happens to be a damn good friend of yours truly. So while I knew that THE DEVIL DARED ME TO had been sold to Vivendi Visual Entertainment (distributed by Universal), and retitled DICK: THE DEVIL DARED ME TO (apparently due to the film's lead villain, the brilliantly named Dick Johansonson, and because the word "dick" also means "penis"), I had no idea that not only had it already come out, it's been on the shelves since early August. Thanks for the head's up, Ant! So with this in mind, I planned on doing a little write-up to let everyone know that the film is finally available here (avilable at most best Buy locations) and well worth seeing. What I didn't know until I was pulling artwork for the title for this very piece is that the back of the box features a quote that comes from this very website ("A cult classic in the making") that is attributed to another source, that being Fangoria Magazine.

Now, I've written for Fangoria for many years (though in a much more on-and-off basis these days) and that's what many people associate me with, but the source is simply incorrect. More so than that, Fango's Michael Gingold positively reviewed the film from the same Fantasia screening on the Fango website back in July '07, so if you want to credit that then you should go ahead. I can understand that more people know Fangoria than they do HQ 10, but then again I'd never heard of and yet, they're quoted, too. I have the feeling that this came about when someone associated me as a Fangoria writer without checking to see if Fangoria was the source, but I don't want there to be any confusion. I'm sure that the packaging is probably never going to be recalled, so I'd just like people to know that Fangoria called THE DEVIL DARED ME TO "A crowdpleasing riot", which is just as good a quote (if not better) than "A cult classic in the making". I'm more than happy to have my name on the back of the box, but I don't want to step on the good toes of the Fango folks while doing so.

Regardless of all this, DICK - THE DEVIL DARED ME TO is out now and well worth seeing. You can quote me on that.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

27 Days Til Halloween/Halloween/Halloween...

While everyone and their uncle will be dressing as Heath Ledger's Joker this Halloween, I've already got my costume all selected: Mike Meyer's Guru Pitka from THE LOVE GURU. And thank goodness that I don't have to go searching for materials, because - lucky me! - it's already available in costume stores everywhere.

Like most of you, I didn't bother to see THE LOVE GURU, but I know exactly just how this whole costume thing came about. While the film was in production, the marketing folks at Paramount held a meeting to determine what would be the best way to merchandise THE LOVE GURU; since Meyer's AUSTIN POWERS character was a success (though do you know anyone who still proudly displays their old McFarlane action figures?) and an extremely popular Halloween costume for several years, the LOVE GURU outfit certainly was a no-brainer. The fact that everyone hated THE LOVE GURU (and it was a box office disappointment), obviously put a damper on the whole LOVE GURU costume scheme, but I have to guess that materials were already assembled and produced by the time the film's brief theatrical engagement came and went, so they damn well couldn't stop it. No doubt the orders were low and stock is readily available. In fact, I dare you to buy one and wear it for Halloween. Gotta wonder what kind of looks you're going to get.

Jeez, that poor model looks embarrassed. That's all I have to say about that.