Monday, December 29, 2008

Hooray for region-free: I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay

I've read a few claims that region coding will be less restrictive for Blu-ray than it was for DVD. Certainly, we're already seeing signs of this, with Blu-ray having a mere three regions vs DVD's six, and apparently several studios are going region-free on catalog title and even new releases. I still worry about how long this is going to last - it might have been a response to HD DVD not bothering with region coding at all, and now that there's no need to compete with Toshiba, we'll see more things region-locked.

I hope not. It's probably different outside the United States, but here, region coding has the primary effect of annoying a company's best customers, either by making titles we want unavailable (or needing a hacked machine) or taunting us with better special editions oversees. Honestly, everyone wins if various people with rights to release a movie have to compete to release the best edition.

We almost missed out with I'm a Cyborg anyway; Tartan Films only acquired the United Kingdom rights and then filed for bankruptcy soon after announcing a Blu-ray edition. I figured that was it, until a crawl through Amazon's new releases turned up some of the other discs that were announced at the same time (Paranoid Park, Sky Blue) as import discs; a quick trawl through SendIt indicated that this one had been released, although it wasn't in stock, but could be had on order. Apparently, some either slipped out before Tartan went into receivership or the company that bought Tartan eventually put it out. All that was left was verifying that it wasn't Region B.

Worth noting: The Blu-ray looks amazing. It's easily Park Chan-wook's most colorful movie. Still, it's always kind of stunning to watch a Blu-ray or HD DVD when you haven't in a few weeks and notice that, no matter how good you thought upconversion is, or the HD signal from the cable company is... It can be that much better.

Anyway, here's hoping it shows up in the US sometime soon; maybe to cash in on Thirst, Park's upcoming sexy vampire movie.

Saibogujiman Kwenchana (I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 December 2008 in Jay's Living Room (Blu-ray Disc, imported from the UK)

Even with the recent success of Bong Joon-ha's The Host and popularity of Kim Ji-woon's The Good, the Bad, and the Weird on the festival circuit, Park Chan-Wook is likely still the best-known Korean filmmaker outside his native country. Like any director who has found success within a certain genre, though, his ventures away from the familiar are regarded with suspicion, and as a result, his new movie - which is not a revenge story, but a decidedly off-kilter romance - is not getting much exposure at all on this side of the Pacific.

It's offbeat, in part, because most of it takes place in a mental institution. Cha Young-goon (Lim Su-jeong) was committed there after an apparent suicide attempt that came from delusion that she is a cyborg (which also contributes to her anorexia, as cyborgs don't have to heat). Once there, she meets a number of patients with issues of their own, but the one that she connects with the most is Park Il-sun (Rain), a thief who believes he can not only steal tangible things but parts of people's personalities - and that he's in danger of shrinking to the size of a dot and disappearing.

Though I'm a Cyborg has occasionally been described as a romantic comedy, it doesn't fit the usual template that well. The comedy is often pitch-black, as Young-goon fantasizes about fully recharging and slaughtering the "white 'uns" (the doctors and nurses who took her schizophrenic grandmother away), among other things. And while the romance is at times a little one-sided, it is also fairly uncomplicated; we're not given manufactured misunderstandings or plot devices that separate them. For all the peculiar things said and going on, it is a fairly straightforward love story.

That sort of movie needs a strong cast to make it work, and by that I don't mean the entertaining group of secondary characters (although they are quite enjoyable, too). Rain and Lim have tough roles; they've got to be not all there in a convincing way, but the movie wouldn't be half as enjoyable if the audience merely sympathized with or pitied them. Rain, a pop star in his first major acting role, is at times a little uneven as Il-sun. He's called upon to be more capable and self-aware than the rest of the patients, and it's sometimes a little difficult to get a handle on what his true personality is amid the conflicting purposes. It's not a bad performance; in fact, he's pretty good with dialog, though he doesn't always communicate well without speaking.

This is not a problem for Lim Su-jeong. She plays Young-goon a little broader than Rain plays Il-sun; we can always see the child-like belief in her fantasy world that allows reason to just fly past her. She's very earnest in acting out the rules of Young-goon's world, whether talking to vending machines or holding batteries to her tongue to recharge herself, but she avoids acting overtly robotic. Her behavior would almost be cute if she wasn't also unnerving: She doesn't blink very often, her eyebrows have been dyed to near-invisibility to make her face somewhat of a blank, and she genuinely looks as if she hasn't been eating to the point where it may be dangerous.

Making the female lead look unhealthy is just the start of what Park and his collaborators do to make this film memorable visually. There is some slick CGI in places (a late scene that references the nifty opening credits is actually pretty darn impressive), and some spots where the effects seem to be awkward or scaled back a little to keep the delusions from seducing the audience. Much of the film is shot in bright, almost overwhelming colors, with interesting camera work. It's perhaps Park's most beautiful movie.

Beautiful enough that it's a real shame few here will get to see it on the big screen. Or even the small one - as of right now, it has no U.S. distributor, two years after its Korean release. I hope it does; maybe the release of Park's more commercial next movie will grease the wheels.

Also at HBS, along with one other review.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Screener catch-up: Eye in the Sky

At some point, I'll probably do a big long list of everything I've got ticket stubs for this year; things have just gotten away from me lately. Before then, I made it one of my end-of-year goals to watch and review every screener I've been sent. Looking at the calendar, it might be wise to use it as a New Year's resolution instead.

I received two screeners from the Philadelphia Film Festival back in April; the other was Timecrimes, which I wound up seeing at Fantasia (after passing it up at the IFFB because I had a screener sitting on my coffee table). Suffice it to say that after this delay, I wouldn't be terribly shocked if they chose not to send me more next year.

Gun Chung (Eye in the Sky)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 December 2008 in Jay's Living Room (letterboxed DVD screener from the Philadelphia Film Festival)

It would not take a whole lot of tinkering to transform Eye in the Sky into a pretty good pilot for a pretty good TV show. Even considering the glut of police procedurals on American TV, there isn't one that attacks crime from this particular angle, and it introduces the idea well. It is, however, not a TV series, but a film, one which doesn't quite live up to the promise of its opening and idea.

The opening act is a corker, as a gang of crooks converge on a jewelry store to execute a precisely timed robbery. One, Brother Shan (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), hangs back, watching for anything unexpected - like one of their number being followed. What we don't see until everything is completed is that we've actually been watching two things going down. The robbery is one; the other is Sergeant Wong Man Chin (Simon Yam) testing young Constable Ho Ka Po (Kate Tsui) to see if she's got the right stuff to join the Surveillance Unit. He concludes that she's green, but doesn't look like a cop, so she's given the job. The unit's next job, of course, is poring over all the local surveillance footage to try and locate the crooks, with the hope that finding even one will lead them to the rest.

Like many police procedurals, Eye in the Sky is at its best when it is, in fact, procedural. The opening robbery is more a smash-and-grab than a delicate heist, but there's still enough moving parts and to keep it interesting. The mechanics of police surveillance is the really interesting part for a process junkie, as the cops switch tails off and on and scan screens to find people who show up multiple times. It's the sort of thing that a lot of crime movies gloss over, substituting magical facial recognition software for the legwork and combination of high- and low-tech methods we see used.

Complete review at EFC.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Ashes of Time Redux

I honestly wonder how much my liking this version of Ashes of Time more than the original version is due to the actual merits of the two cuts and how much is due to the me of 2008 not being the me of 2005. Not that I'm that much different, but when I saw the original cut, I'd only seen two of Wong Kar-Wai's films before (if you don't count stuff he just wrote for money, like Haunted Cop Shop 2), and so didn't really know his aesthetic. I sort of thought he was just doing his big wuxia action movie, like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou would later do.

I did like the movie much more this time around, though I'm now very curious to see what Eagle Shooting Heroes is like. It is, apparently, a spoof of the same novel that was adapted into Ashes of Time, shot at roughly the same time, on the same sets, with much of the same cast and crew (though, if the IMDB is to be believed, with several in different roles). No writer is credited on IMDB, but I seem to remember Wong Kar-Wai being referred to as responsible during one of the old Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kicking showings (which, for a time, substituted a Weekly Wednesday Wong Kar-Wai series).

Dung che sai duk redux (Ashes of TIme Redux)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 October 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square (first-run)

I saw and reviewed Ashes of Time three and a half years ago, when it played as part of a series of director Wong Kar-wai's films at the Brattle Theatre. I was not particularly impressed at the time, in part because I approached it as a wuxia film first and as a WKW mood piece second, and in part because there apparently hasn't been a decent print to be found for years. Watching Ashes of Time Redux isn't quite like seeing a whole new movie, but it was certainly a new and better experience. How much of that is due to the new cut, how much is due to the restoration, and how much is me approaching it with a different attitude is an open question.

The film takes place in and around a tavern run by Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a once-great warrior who now mainly connects swordsmen with those who have a use for them. As the film starts, it is springtime, time for the annual visit of Huang Yaoshi (Tony Lenug Ka Fai), and old friend who brings with him a gift - a bottle of magical wine that it is said can erase memories. Feng opts not to sip from it, but Huang does, leaving Feng to deal with Murong Yang and Murong Yin (Brigitte Lin), siblings at conflict over their past encounters with Feng. As the seasons pass, others come - a swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) who fears he will lose his sight before he sees the peach blossoms of his hometown again; Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), a barefoot would-be hero; and a girl (Charlie Yeung) who wishes to avenge her brother's death but who has only a mule and some eggs to pay with. We also learn Feng's own sad story, which led him to isolate himself from the world this way - it is, of course, about a woman (Maggie Cheung).

Those looking for action will probably come away somewhat disappointed, even more so than I was when I saw the original 1994 cut. What we see is pretty good - it is choreographed by Sammo Hung, after all, with his trademark hard-hitting style. This isn't the lighter-than-air gliding of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but close-in lethal swordplay, with plenty of blood spilled and limbs severed. We do see glimpses of more fantastical combat, where a swing of the sword can shatter mountains or cause explosions, but one of the primary big differences between the two versions - likely much of the reason why the 2008 "Redux" cut is seven minutes shorter - is that two early fight scenes are cut.

The film does not particularly suffer for their absence, but the greatest improvement to the flow of the movie is perhaps much simpler - Wong has added in chapter titles to indicate the passage of the seasons. Even though they don't always indicate a clean break between storylines, they (and the changing narrators) give the movie the feel of an anthology of individual but connected stories, rather than a single messy narrative with too many characters to keep track of entering and exiting. It's still all about Feng, but it is now presented in such a way that the movie guides us toward him, rather than away.

Leslie Cheung gives a performance worth being guided toward, showing (as he often does) a man locking his feelings away, indeed, mocking those who dare to feel. There's a knowing cruelty to Feng, with regret buried very deep underneath. The man hiding his broken heart is the sort of thing Cheung did very well, and it's complimented nicely by Maggie Cheung's brief but memorable appearance as the one who got away. The rest of the cast is similarly fine, most notably Brigitte Lin.

The restoration certainly makes a major difference in the look of the film. Christopher Doyle's cinematography is much more clear and sharp than it was in previous prints, with the desert looking vast and beautiful. Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the movie now looks too pretty - the colors are brighter and bolder than they were in the original release, a closer match to the expensive, glossy wuxia films that would appear after Ashes of Time's original release. It almost looks like digital video at times - not bad, but almost unnaturally sharp.

That's perhaps not a perfect match for the story, which is less the usual tale of honor and duty than a meditation of ephemerality of life and memory, and how love can slip away with time. For me, it tells the story better; at the very least, it looks better than it has in some time.

Also at HBS.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Movie Watch-a-Thon: Don't Go in the House, Rolling Thunder, Darker than Amber, Riot on Sunset Strip, Truck Turner

Watch-a-thon Tally: 5 Brattle Films, 5 other films.

I don't think I'm winning the Movie Watch-a-Thon contests this year. My current tally is the five movies at the Brattle listed below and five at other theaters, and the month is already halfway past. I've got no sponsors because I haven't felt good about asking people for money - everybody I know outside of work has been talking about not having any money, and the last month or two at work has seen enough emails asking for donations that people were openly grumbling when another one arrived, so I might want to lay low there.

That leaves you guys. I've looked at my hit counters - there are dozens of readers here. Anybody who would like to make a donation to help the Brattle Theatre, you can use this link (or click on the widgets on this post and the sidebar). A couple years ago, when the first Movie-Watch-a-Thon took place, I put an article up on eFilmCritic and Hollywood Bitchslap about why the Brattle matters even if you've never been close to Boston; not much has changed since then.

Anyway: Give generously if you can. If you've been writing me about advertising or link exchanges, this would be a really fine way to get me to actually consider it. And if you're in the area, stop by The Brattle; they've got Carole Lombard movies this coming weekend, and I'm certain we'll see Evil Dead 2 for Halloween.

Don't Go in the House

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 October 2008 at The Brattle Theater (Return to the Grindhouse)

There are certain movies that home video just doesn't do justice, because even the best high-definition transfer and mastering can't quite capture the exquisite photography, or the way a larger-than-life image captures a larger-than-life performance, or how an entire audience finds itself in sync, jumping in fear or laughing at the same time. Then there's this one, which is best seen in a packed theater because it really doesn't get any better than the moment when the killer and a victim are standing outside the door and someone in the audience says "hey, don't go in the house."

The killer is Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi); he hears voices and is drawn to fire. His mother would burn him to punish him as a child, he currently works at the city incinerator, and when his mother dies, he decides to make one of their house's rooms into an oven, where he can roast girls with a flamethrower. After a few days of this, his co-worker and would-be buddy Bobby (Robert Osth) starts to wonder why he's not coming into work.

For all that one expects little from this sort of film, it consistently manages to deliver less. Forget wanting anything like good acting or an interesting story; Don't Go in the House is disappointing in terms of simple exploitation trashiness. It peaks much too early, with Donny's first kill; that scene combines nudity, chains, and fire effects that aren't bad for the period and budget at all. It's an effective torture porn moment, a generation before the term would be coined, but filmmaker Joseph Ellison doesn't have anywhere to go from there; Donny's a one-trick pony and mostly does that trick off-screen afterward.

Absent a parade of fire, blood, and skin, we're forced to try and enjoy the movie on the merits of such things as story, acting, and dialog, and that's just a disaster. People in this movie talk in a way that not only fails to stick in one's mind, but makes one worry that it might be realistic, with our own conversation being that bland. The acting has a lot of the same properties, with everybody tying so hard to act like ordinary people that they instead come across as half-hearted imitations.

There is, admittedly, a bit of mean-spirited fun to be had mocking a movie like this, especially when it devotes a long scene to outfitting Donny in now very dated fashions. That might be said to give the movie undue credit, though - this was a bad movie from the start, not one which has turned rotten with time.

Also at HBS, along with two other reviews.

Rolling Thunder

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 October 2008 at The Brattle Theater (Return to the Grindhouse)

Given the people involved in Rolling Thunder, along with its generally decent quality and good reputation, it's kind of surprising that this movie has yet to get a DVD release, at least in the US. It was produced by Lawrence Gordon, with a screenplay by Paul Schrader. William Devane has worked steadily, and people like Tommy Lee Jones. Quentin Tarantino named his short-lived distribution label after it. And yet, the only easy option for seeing it is streaming via Netflix.

(Unless you're lucky enough to have a local theater that books oddball films every once in a while. In which case, make sure they get your support.)

In 1973, a group of American prisoners of war returned home to Texas from Vietnam. Major Charles Rane (William Devane) has been gone for seven years. The town tries to make him feel welcome back, gifting him with a new car and a silver dollar for every day he spent in captivity. At first, things are simply uncomfortable; his son doesn't recognize him and his wife Janet (Lisa Blake Richards) has grown close to divorced sheriff Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll) in that time away. That's before a group of thugs come over, wanting the money. They put him in the hospital and others in the grave, but probably don't give the proper amount of thought to how tough and determined someone who's survived more than half a decade of torture might be.

For a small movie likely marketed more for action than emotion, Rolling Thunder feels remarkably genuine. The Rane household doesn't devolve into a bunch of screaming matches, and for all that people are hurt and uncomfortable, there's not much blame thrown around - Janet and Cliff are never portrayed as bad people. The vets we see broken and haunted but functional, even if there is something angry and violent looking for a way to lash out not far under the surface. A character like Linda Forchet (Linda Haynes), the self-described "groupie" who attaches herself to Rane, is built up as someone who has an existence beyond falling in love with him.

Having a strong core of actors in the lead helps. Devane anchors the movie as Rane; there are a lot of earnest dramas about soldiers returning home from war that don't feature a performance as good as Devane's. He's a soldier through and through, so he's always tightly controlled, but he does a fine job of showing just how close to madness Rane's experience has left him. Tommy Lee Jones has a similar, though smaller, part - his Johnny Vohden outwardly seems a little less angry, but toward the end, there's often a look on his face that says he is really enjoying the chance to do some violence. Linda Haynes is quite good here, convincing us that her character has a history of her own. The script tells us that she's getting a little old for the cycle her personal life is in, but Haynes convinces us that Linda Forchet knows it. It's too bad she didn't have a longer career, and perhaps can be attributed in part to Twentieth Century Fox offloading Rolling Thunder onto a smaller company; if this got a studio push rather than just playing in drive-ins and grindhouses, then maybe she gets cast in a higher class of movie and doesn't leave Hollywood relatively young.

For all it does well, the movie isn't perfect. Subplots have a peculiar tendency to dead-end, sometimes literally. Other times it just feels like director John Flynn and editor Frank Keller were just relentless about clipping what they felt was non-essential, right through the very quick jump to the end credits. It almost feels like Schrader had a more ambitious film in mind, even though it mostly got boiled down to a revenge thriller.

Which isn't so bad; it's a good revenge thriller, with tough but vulnerable heroes and nasty villains. There's plenty of blood for those who want it, including a couple of examples of why one should not engage in a close-quarters fight with a trained soldier who has a prosthetic hook for a hand (one of which should make the male members of the audience involuntarily wince). The last action set-piece is especially well-done, with the extra layer of grit and grime that comes from taking place in a Mexican brothel.

It's a real shame Rolling Thunder is so tough to find as of this writing. It's mostly a bit of violent pulp, sure, but it's very well made violent pulp that aspires to be more. A lot of B-movies have ambitions to rise above their station; this one actually manages it on occasion.

Also at HBS.

Darker Than Amber

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2008 at The Brattle Theater (Return to the Grindhouse)

Darker than Amber has a place in cinematic history, though probably not the sort its producers intended. They likely thought they were starting a franchise of films based on John D. MacDonald's novels, from the way some actors were billed: A couple of minor, peripheral characters are highlighted, and the opening titles starts with the oddly-ordered "Travis McGee is Rod Taylor". Instead, it got an extremely limited release and is now notable as the film which inspired Bruce Lee to hire Robert Clouse to direct Enter the Dragon.

One can tell it deserves better right from the start, when a group of toughs drive a pretty but defiant girl to a bridge and throw her over. A weight drags her to the bottom, but not before snagging the fishing line of a couple men stationed underneath the bridge. The younger man dives in after her. He's Travis McGee, and his companion is Meyer (Theodore Bikel). They take her back to McGee's houseboat, where the girl (Suzy Kendall) initially gives her name as Jane Doe, although after a while she opens up a bit to tell them it's Evangeline. The men who tried to kill her are still out there, of course, and once they realize she's not dead, McGee's going to have his work cut out for him.

Travis McGee isn't quite a private detective - he describes his business to Vangie as "finding lost things", which could put him in the maritime salvage line - but he does come out of the classic Philip Marlowe knight-errant mold. He seems to have some money: He drives a classic Rolls Royce ("Miss Agnes") when on land, and never seems to lack resources in hunting Vangie's pursuers down, but he's not shy about bruising his knuckles, either. Rod Taylor is a nice fit for the part; he's weathered but still has a sort of youthful vitality to him. He spent much of his career as a character actor, and that carries over to his Travis McGee - Taylor captures the laid-back vibe of the character, giving him enough personality and charm that we believe he can be interesting in any situation, while not making McGee larger than life so that he would stick out in a bad way or push other characters off the screen.

And the rest of the cast does deserve watching. I suspect James Booth and Jane Russell would have had more to do if other Travis McGee stories were adapted - Booth plays Burk, the cranky old Scot whose skiff McGee and Meyer were using when Vangie dropped into their lives, while Russell's Alabama Tigress is a widow whose yacht has been hosting the same party for a year and a half - but they don't get much to do here. Theodore Bikel's Meyer is McGee's boatmate and best friend (and, frequently, bartender), perhaps even more laid back but still a good man to have on your side. William Smith is a bulked-up psychotic monster, all intensity and brute force to counter Rod Taylor's cool confidence.

The movie star here is Suzy Kendall, though - we get to see her spitting in Smith's face before we're gobsmacked with just how beautiful she is. She draws eyes to her like a magnet, and it's always worth it. There are some scenes where she's playing excited by the promise of adventure, but the bulk of it is her playing Vangie as something of a reluctant femme fatale. She manages to charm us, making her default state sexy and fun, even though we've seen what kind of mess she's been a part of.

The scene that best illustrates that - a quick flashback while Vangie evades McGee's questions - is as much a testament to director Robert Clouse's skill as hers (it's a great editing choice). Enter the Dragon would later pigeonhole him as a martial-arts director, and you can see the beginnings of that in the fight scenes: It's American-style fist-fights, but they look and feel like real fights, complete with bone-crunching action. That's not all he's got going for him - he's got good timing, knows how to make bad guys appear threatening even when they're just lurking around the edges of the screen, and always manages to give the audience something interesting to look at, even though he doesn't go for a particularly stylized look.

Darker Than Amber came and went quickly during its original release, and has seldom been seen since, which is a real shame - it's a very impressive crime movie. It's a pity it never saw the same sort of success as its source material.

Also at HBS.

Riot on Sunset Strip

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2008 at The Brattle Theater (Return to the Grindhouse)

It is perhaps fitting that Riot on Sunset Strip occasionally feels trapped between generations. This 1967 quickie - made to reference recent confrontations between Hollywood police and the local youth - is so earnestly trying its best to be fair that it sometimes doesn't seem to recognize just how little its parts fit together.

Consider its opening narration, something pulled out of a moralizing crime story of the forties and fifties. It introduces the teenagers and college kids who spend their evenings hanging out on the Sunset Strip - in booming, stentorian tones - as if they are some sort of alien culture, like subjects in an educational film of some sort. It's clearly speaking to the older people in the audience, but if that's the case, why feature so much music from bands like The Standells, The Chocolate Watchband, and The Enemies? To appeal to everyone, of course, but it serves to illustrate one of the central problems of the era - the constant tendency to approach the issues of the 1960s with a 1940s mindset which is so obviously out of place.

(Fun musical facts: The lead singer for The Chocolate Watchband was on-hand to introduce the film at its Cambridge, MA screening - because he teaches at Harvard these days. He mentioned that no-one on set thought much of The Enemies, who would soon disband and reform as Three Dog Night)

The movie itself can perhaps be described as affectionately alarmist. Meet Andy (Mimsy Farmer), the pretty good girl who moved to Los Angeles a week ago. When she and her friends get pulled in for a curfew violation, she opts to call a family friend she hasn't seen in four years rather than her drunk of a mother. Her father is Lt. Walt Lorimer (Aldo Ray), the officer who has the job of keeping the peace in that part of Los Angeles, trying to balance the college kids' pledges to police themselves with the older merchants who want a crackdown on the "longhairs" they see as a threat to their higher-end businesses. Father and daughter haven't seen each other in years, either, and aren't going to until a party that she attends turns ugly.

Riot on Sunset Strip is not particularly well-crafted in any facet, which is to be expected from something thrown together in a month and a half. The filmmakers seem to be earnest about the whole thing, which gives the movie the makings of a genuine camp classic. It veers wildly between points of view - it will present the kids as intelligent and reasonable in one reel and then have Andy's friend Liz-Ann absolutely inarticulate in the next - but its heart always seems to be in the right place. I'm not sure whether the script is all over the place or if it's the direction; writer Orville Hampton actually does a decent job of building a story that goes from point A to B to C smoothly, but much of the dialog involved clanks, and neither director nor Arthur Dreifuss nor the actors gets much out of the script. Even the best-known and most experienced, Aldo Ray, is just kind of there.

Except, that is, for Mimsy Farmer. I won't lie to you... This isn't great acting, but one extended sequence is in the top tier of on-screen hotness. Yes, you may feel a little guilty because this is after some ne'er-do-wells slipping some LSD into Andy's soda and it doesn't end well to say the least, but as hilariously over-the-top as her performance is, it drips more raw sex than many scenes where an actress actually undresses. Laurie Mock's manic, cackling, and high-as-a-kite Liz-Ann isn't far behind it, either.

Indeed, for all that Riot on Sunset Strip is often laughable when it's trying to say something intelligent and conciliatory about the late-1960s generation gap, it frequently manages to score big when it just goes for something visceral, whether that be "teen" sexuality or musical performances. It's no great movie, but it's got its pleasures, even if they are simple ones.

Also at HBS.

Truck Turner

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2008 at The Brattle Theater (Return to the Grindhouse)

I want to make this very clear: When I, at some future time, tell people that they've gotta see Truck Turner, I will be doing it because I really like Truck Turner. Not because I particularly like blaxploitation (most of what I've seen is pretty awful), but because this is a fun action movie. Granted, some of its exuberance is inappropriate at best coming out of my very white mouth, but I can dig the energy even if I can't duplicate it.

Mac "Truck" Turner (Isaac Hayes) was a pro football player until he blew out his knee; now he's a skip tracer; he and partner Jerry (Alan Weeks) mostly work for bail bondsman Nate Dinwiddle (Sam Laws). His girlfriend Annie (Annazette Chase) has just spent thirty days behind bars for shoplifting. It ain't a great life, but it's not a bad one, until Truck and Jerry go after pimp Gator Johnson (Paul Harris), and wid up taking him down rather than bringing him in. His woman Dorrinda (Nichelle Nichols) is furious, and puts a price on Truck's head. Most who would collect are no match for Truck, but king pimp Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto) might have what it takes.

Isaac Hayes was about as cool as a man could be, and Truck Turner frequently takes on his personality. Truck is no-nonsense when it comes to his work, but personable and always ready to crack a joke. Most of the time he's a big teddy bear, but he's quite capable of summoning a ton of power, so that there's no question of who's the baddest man in the room. He doesn't cry, but he's got a big heart. Truck is fun to watch because he doesn't vary too far from Hayes's own persona. And just in case you weren't sure this was Hayes's movie, he contributes a great, funky score, at least as good as his more famous work on Shaft.

Hayes alone would be a lot of fun, but the rest of the cast certainly manages to pull their own weight. Alan Weeks and Sam Laws are at their best when cutting it up with Hayes, and Anazette Chase is pretty good as Annie. She's the girlfriend, not there for much more, but Chase makes her seem like Annie's got a reason for existing outside of being threatened by the men after Truck. Scatman Crothers shows up. And Yaphet Kotto is fantastic as usual, making both a grand entrance and exit, giving Truck one heck of a worthy adversary.

And then there's Nichelle Nichols. I've seen her character of Dorrinda described as a "madam", but let's not be sexist about it: She's a full-on pimp. Those who only know Nichols from Star Trek (that is to say, everybody) will probably get a big kick out of her sleazing it up as the movie's villain. She goes as far over the top as anybody, and it's a gas. The funeral scene is a garish riot, although it's not long after that the movie starts displaying a real mean streak. Director Jonathan Kaplan handle that well - when it's time to get nasty, he lets you know playtime is over without making it seem like we've stumbled into another movie.

What's not to like? You've got Isaac Hayes being Isaac Hayes, Yaphet Kotto larger than life, and Lt. Uhura as a nasty mack. Even if it weren't a pretty darn enjoyable action movie, it's definite "you gotta see it" stuff.

Also at HBS, along with one other review.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Boston Film Festival: Appaloosa

I have to admit, I came pretty close to completely forgetting about the Boston Film Festival this year. That wasn't always the case; the BFF used to be a week and a weekend of going into work early so I could get out in time to make an afternoon show, running or taking the Green Line between Copley Square and Boston Common, and buying books of ten tickets even if I wasn't exactly what you'd call gainfully employed. Then it changed hands, they started scrambling to book anything (mostly locally-filmed mediocrity that the people running it knew from the Massachusetts Film Office), and the whole thing began to feel much more amateur hour.

This year, I actually liked the look of much of the lineup, but it seemed so low-profile - the Globe no longer puts it at the front of their Sunday movie section, for instance - that by the time I realized that it was that weekend, I had already bought tickets to see a ballgame in New York on Saturday, and then wound up working late for the rest of the festival.

For Appaloosa, they had Robert B. Parker, who wrote the original novel, as a guest, along with producer and screenwriter Robert Knott. I like Parker; he's got this thing going where he's self-deprecating, but winks while he does it to show that, in fact, he's got quite a bit of pride in his work. It could seem phony, but he was doing it next to the people of the Boston Film Festival, and even though Parker's persona is probably more of an act than theirs, they just feel more self-serving. They had the Q&A conducted by Joyce Kulhawik, a popular local TV-news personality who was recently dropped by her station, so it wound up feeling like a puffy entertainment piece; the questions were just as rote and uninteresting as the usual festival Q&A, but without the illusion of actual curiosity.

I probably mentioned it last year and the year before, but the staff just does not know how to work a room like the folks at the other festivals I attend. I think the key point is that they never seem to be talking about movies, as opposed to themselves. You go to Fantasia, and the people introducing the films and filmmakers will connect what you're about to see to other great pictures; the BFF people will say how hard they worked to put it together. Not that they don't at other festivals; it's just that where IFFB or Fantasia or a number of other festivals feel like they're about connecting audiences to movies and filmmakers, BFF gives off the impression that these folks want to be people who run a film festival. That's probably a totally unfair impression, but it's pretty inescapable.

Anyway, speaking of festivals, here's the last reviews of movies I saw at Fantasia: Gangster VIP, May 18th, From Within, Babysitter Wanted, Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie, Seven Days, 4bia, Sasori, Tunnel Rats, Voice of a Murderer, and Pig Hunt. Still got a bunch of screeners from that and Fantastic Fest, but who knows how many of them I'll get to around the Brattle's Watch-a-thon. But that's the next post...


* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 September 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (Boston Film Festival)

It strikes me that westerns, as a type of film, are in about the same place science fiction was a few decades ago: They don't fit on a studio's balance sheet very well (kind of expensive to do right, not enough of an audience to do often), so only one or two make their ways to the multiplexes each year. There, they have the unenviable task of satisfying the fan who has been waiting for this annual treat and justifying their existence to the moviegoer who sees it as a simplistic genre that people grow out of.

Appaloosa is a good western that, at least initially, is unfairly dragged down by the pressure placed upon every new western to be exceptional. As the film opens and gets moving, one might wonder "why this movie? What is it about Appaloosa that motivated producers to invest in the production?" It seems to be made of standard parts: The old marshal is killed by villainous rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his men; the town of Appaloosa hires a pair of freelance peacekeepers to bring them to justice. New sheriff Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are certainly good with their guns, although they're uncomfortably authoritarian, enforcing the law because that pays better than breaking it - although that seems to change when widow Allison French (Renee Zellwegger) comes to town.

That's when some interesting things start happening. She gravitates toward Virgil, even though Everett has also shown interest. We see Virgil snap, seemingly out of nowhere, and how much he needs Everett around to keep him on an even keel. And then, when Bragg's trial does not put an end to things, we see what really makes Allison tick.

It is what goes on between Virgil, Everett, and Allison that forms the heart of the movie, and makes it a fine example of the western. Robert Parker, who wrote the original novel, described it as a love story between two heterosexual men, and though that description may earn some snickers, it's a fair one. Virgil and Everett are entangled by respect and loyalty rather than any kind of romantic or sexual attraction, but we see how well they function together, and how in some ways they need each other, with Everett able to rein Virgil in and Virgil supplying Everett with direction.

Then you bring Allison into the picture, and while on one level she is the woman who throws a monkey wrench into the men's unsworn brotherhood, she also embodies what I find to be the basic theme of the western: Civilized people in an environment that is, effectively, lawless. Allison keenly recognizes that she's in a world where might often makes right and a woman on her own doesn't have many options. The ones she chooses to exercise are not necessarily admirable - though they're not the obvious, simple ones you might initially suspect - but they're understandable and make her an interesting figure beyond how she affects the plot.

It's a nice performance by Renee Zellweger: She hits on a lot of familiar characteristics of women in westerns - the likable ones, the widows who probably belong someplace finer - and manages to make Allison somewhat sympathetic while still being manipulative. Ed Harris is playing a rather simpler character, and what he's doing doesn't look like much at first, just grunting out tough-guy dialog (though he does that very well indeed). It's not until Allison starts to get in Virgil's head that we see a whole lot in the way of nuance, and even then, the emphasis is on how Virgil is at heart a simple man, not made for this sort of confusion. Viggo Mortensen gets to do more from the beginning - Everett's our narrator, and though he isn't much more complicated than Virgil, he's smarter, and even though he doesn't say much, we can always see him assessing the situation.

With the main characters going on, the other actors seem almost underused: The likes of James Gammon and Timothy Spall are, quite frankly, overkill as the merchants who hire Virgil and Everett. It's a pleasure to see Lance Henriksen show up midway through, though, as a hired gun who may be Cole's equal but doesn't feel a particular need to brag about it; he's made for parts like this. Jeremy Irons is a villain whom I'd like to have seen as a more active participant - he makes a good chief thug and manages to seem even more sadistic when he steps away from simple violence.

In addition to starring, Ed Harris co-wrote on the screenplay and directs. He does a nice job of portraying how isolated the various outposts in the west were, and how a Randall Bragg or a Virgil Cole can become an autocrat within the borders of the United States. For all that the film is about the relationships between Virgil, Everett, and Allison, Harris gives us a few nice gunfights - mostly of the quick-draw variety, but a couple are more substantial.

This is clearly a labor of love for Ed Harris - heck, he even performs one of the songs over the end credits. He's one of the most dependably solid actors out there, so it's hardly any surprise that he does good work behind the camera as well.

Also at HBS, along with one other review.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Red Heroine

Last weekend, while the Hollywood studios decided to settle for one underwhelming new release, the local programmers in the Boston area gave us more exciting repatory bookings than we could possibly watch - Hitchcock at the Brattle, Peckinpah at the Harvard Film Archive, and the annual Films at the Gate program in Chinatown. I got to a couple of the Peckinpah films, and may catch some Hitchcock tonight - on the one hand, the Sox-Rays game should be great; on the other hand, I hate missing Hitchcock on the big screen; gripping hand may be that I do have Stage Fright (like pretty much all Hitch's movies) on DVD, even if I've never watched it.

The only bit of Films at the Gate I got to was Red Heroine, but that was a ton of fun - I love silents and martial arts, so seeing a free movie with Devil Music Ensemble accompanying was a no-brainer. They're touring with it, and it's worth seeing just for curiosity's sake.

I wrote to DME to make sure I got the right names (or as close to right as possible), and they pointed me to this article about the film's return. The six-part history of early kung fu cinema at the end is a great read.

I've also finished off four more reviews from Fantasia. I'm kind of surprised these movies aren't falling out the back of my brain like I expected them to, especially considering all the "seventy-five movies in 21 days? How can you keep them straight?" comments I got. It turns out that it's not all that difficult to keep Shamo, Robo Rock, Be A Man! Samurai School and Trailer Park of Terror from running into each other; they're pretty darn distinct.

Hongxia (Red Heroine)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 September 2008 in a Chinatown Empty Lot (Films at the Gate)

People have been discovering martial arts movies for as long as there have been movies. Jackie Chan and Jet Li made a splash in America during the 1990s, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took critics by storm soon after, but fans knew that this was nothing new. Their parents had discovered Bruce Lee, and he had his own antecedents. Once you get much past 1960s Shaw Brothers, though, stuff gets harder to find. The trail more or less stops at Red Heroine, a wuxia film from 1929, not because it was the first ever made, but because it's the oldest to survive.

Film preservation was a low priority in the early twentieth century, after all - few treated movies as more than disposable entertainment until far too many had been disposed of - and in China, both the Nationalist and later Communist governments discouraged fantastic film of any kind, fearing the superstitious image it projected to the rest of the world (a restriction that held up for some time; last year's The Matrimony was a rarity in being a ghost story from mainland China). So the preservation of Shanghai-made adventures like Red Heroine was even more hit-and-miss, with most of the people who made such films moving to British-controlled Hong Kong, leaving them orphaned. As a result, the image quality of this presentation leaves more than a bit to be desired. The copy currently on tour is a PAL digital file with the left and bottom parts of the image cropped off, and the print it is taken from appears to be warped in some spots.

The movie itself is about Yun Ko (Fan Xuepeng aka Xueming), a poor girl whose village is being overrun by an army from the west. Wealthy merchant Hsia Ching Chong (Hsu Ko Hui) and his daughter Chang Cheing (Wang Chu Ching) offer to take her with them as they flee the invasion, but Yun Ko can't leave her elderly grandmother. Her cousin Chong Che (director Wen Yemin) arrives to help, but it's too late - Yun Ko is captured by Ching Che Mang (Sao Guanyu), the general of the invading army, who tries to take her for a wife. She's rescued by White Monkey (Wang Juqing), an old hermit who offers to teach her martial arts so she can take her revenge. Three years later, that will come in handy - the refugees have returned to their homes, but occupying general Ching Che Mang now has his eyes set on Chang Cheing.

I apologize if the names are a bit mixed up - the intertitles were, as mentioned, frequently cut off, and crappy English subtitles are apparently a kung fu movie tradition that goes back eighty years. The characters are visually distinct enough that the names don't really matter, and include a number of familiar archetypes: The decadent general in his ornate robes, his snaggle-toothed adviser, the martial-arts master with the long white beard (and long white eyebrows, of course). The naked slave girls (well, wearing flesh-colored bikinis that the lighting often causes to blend into their skin) are actually further than HK action movies tend to go these days. There's even some gravity-defying stuntwork as Yun Ko soars through the air and teleports in a cloud of smoke.

The action is good enough that I wish there was more of it. The opening act is in constant motion from the army's approach to Yun Ko's rescue, and the big action finale has Fan Xuepeng looking pretty good, holding off the General's bodyguards even as she's losing weapons and the Tartar army arrives to engage the invaders. It's not the crazy wire work of later decades, but still fairly fast-paced and athletic. In between, the movie slows down quite a bit, with Yun Ko disappearing except in Chong Che's flashbacks while we see what the village is like during its occupation, and the story feels somewhat padded, as Hsia Ching Chong's family takes center stage. Training scenes to keep Yun Ko in the forefront, a staple of later kung fu movies, would not have been unwelcome.

The new score by Devil Music Ensemble keeps things upbeat in the meantime. If nothing else, the soundtrack is an impressive feat of endurance on the musicians' part, remaining high-energy without much of a break for anyone in the trio during the film's full ninety-minute running time. They don't go for a specifically "asian" sound, and do a very nice job reacting to what's on-screen, punching things up during the action sequences and keeping everything moving during the talky middle section. They're not above having a little fun reminding the audience what some of these visuals would later evolve into, either: The buck-toothed "chief bodyguard" gets a few mocking notes when he first appears, and the audience loved the whipping noises they worked in the first time White Monkey breaks out the kung fu.

(If you're reading this in September through November of 2008, Devil Music Ensemble is touring with the movie; check their website to see when they are playing near you. Other shows may be scheduled at later dates.)

To be completely honest, Red Heroine is significant by happenstance rather than design or even merit; it was not the first martial arts feature nor likely the best of the period. It just happens to be the earliest that is still around in its entirety. It's got some weaknesses, to be sure, but fans of the genre should check it out if the opportunity presents itself: Both the movie and the new soundtrack are fun, and it's a chance to see the wuxia film in its embryonic form.

Also at HBS.

Shamo (Gwan Gaai)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Though they often wind up on American shelves labeled as just "Asian", the movies that come out of the various countries in that corner of the world tend to have distinct flavors. With the world getting smaller for all of us, it is therefore not a complete surprise that we're starting to see more obvious crossbreeds like Shamo (and Sasori, also at the festival) - garish Japanese craziness mixed with brutal Hong Kong action.

Shamo is based on a manga by Izo Hashimoto, but relocated to Hong Kong for this film (while most of the characters are given Chinese names in the spoken dialog, the Japanese names are used in the subtitles, so that's how they'll be referred to here). It tells the story of Ryo Narushima (Shawn Yue), who is sent to prison at the age of sixteen for the brutal murders of his parents. While inside, he's initially gang-raped, but soon meets karate master Kurogawa (Francis Ng), who molds him into an extraordinary fighter. Upon release (he was sentenced as a juvenile), he just wants to find his sister Natsumi (Weiying Pei), whom he fears has fallen into a life of vice, much as he has. He finds prostitute Megumi (Annie Liu) instead, and enters the world of mixed martial arts to try and raise his profile so that Natsumi can find him, which exposes him to a whole new group of characters: Sugawara (Masato), the reigning champion; Konuzuke, the man behind the LF ("Lethal Fight") league; Fujiyoshi, the big guy who becomes Ryo's manager, and Ryuchi Yamasaki (Dylan Kuo), the half-blind trainer trying to start a competing, less corrupt organization.

Director Soi Cheang's debut feature, Dog Bite Dog, had a reputation for shocking violence and bleakness, and while I haven't seen it to compare, I suspect that Shamo is a little more mainstream. It's still by no means a sanitized, comfortable movie: Ryo and Megumi live squarely in the underbelly of Hong Kong, with Ryo frequently coming off as little more than a caged animal. The world of LF is suitably garish, with Konuzuke happily treating fighters as mere grist for the mill, and the most brutal violence generally reserved for those who deserve it least.

Full review at EFC.

Robo Rock

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Every once in a while, when I'm looking at the Japanese offerings at the video store or a genre festival like Fantasia, I have to stop and wonder - does all this stuff really get a theatrical release over there? I don't know. By the time they cross the Pacific to fill slots at a festival or a small video distributor's release schedule, who knows which are the mainstream hits, the direct-to-video releases, or the Japanese equivalents of a Sci-Fi Channel TV movie? For all I know, Robo Rock is some friends with a consumer HD video camera shooting guerrilla style before handing it off to their other friends who can do wonders with a small CGI budget. It has that feel at times.

There aren't many robots at the start. The film is narrated by Masaru Higawara (Shun Shioya), a slacker-type working as a "handyman" - basically, someone who does odd jobs for a variety of clients. Those jobs are assigned to him by "mediators", in Masaru's case, shady club owner Ibuse (Kenichi Endo). He lives with his girlfriend Kiriko (Minami), a tattoo artist who only knows one design, and hangs out with Kou (Shoichi Honda), another handyman who does more dangerous work. Things are running at their usual just-short-of-disaster level when he teams with Kou to deliver a rare vinyl album that is more than it seems. And then there's Etsaru Nirasawa (Yuichiro Nakayama), a bespectacled otaku who claims to be from the Disaster Prevention Center. According to him, certain doom is headed toward earth and only Masaru's voice can activate the long-lost "Land Zeppelin" giant robot, which is the only hope of stopping it.

There's a lot to Robo Rock that feels kind of rough. The cast, for instance, often seems to be imitating something else: Shioya's Masaru is the would-be rocker with more enthusiasm than talent; Minami is the shrew that constantly belittles him. Nakayama is doing something of a sad-sack variation of the role Masi Oka plays on Heroes, and Shoichi Honda... When his Kou first appears on-screen, saying little but blessed with an impressive afro, my first thought was "Tadanobu Asano's stunt double". There's also a pair of gangsters, "Alpha Tom" and "Beta Tom", who are flamboyant and quirky in the exact way a person might expect. The actors do well enough following the templates, but can't for the most part bring them to individual life.

Full review at EFC.

Sakigake!! Otokojuku (Be a Man! Samurai School)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Tak Sakaguchi was at the Fantasia screening of Be a Man! Samurai School, and every once in a while, the writer/director/star would pause the Q&A, ask if we wanted to see some action, and engage in a little stage fighting with another stuntman who was in town as a guest of the festival. That was a big crowd-pleaser; and it's what Sakaguchi is best at. He's not exactly bad at comedy, but he does tend to fall back on what he knows.

Here, Sakaguchi plays Momotaro Tsurugi, one of a number of students starting the new year at the little-known but highly-exclusive school of the title. There's also clumsy Tyuji Tomaru (Shin'taro Yameda), and scarred Genji Togashi (Shoei), who cries out "grit!" to show his desire to have the school make him a man. Less enthusiastic is Hidemaro Gokuji (Hiroyuki Onoue), who comes from a long line of samurai and yakuza but prefers a far less violent lifestyle himself. This, of course, will not be found at Sakigake!! Otokojuku, which is every cliché about abusive teacher-student and upperclassman-freshman relations turned up to eleven. And that's before the return of Omito Date (Hideo Sakaki), an expelled student looking for revenge.

Those who've seen Cromartie High School will note that Sakaguchi is in somewhat familiar territory for his writing and directing debut: As in Cromartie, much of the movie, especially in the first half, is episodic, a group of loosely linked sketches that are generally pretty amusing, although some jokes might be getting lost in translation. The casting sometimes seems strange, too - none of the actors playing teenagers appear to be under twenty-five; thirty-two year-old Sakaguchi actually comes the closest. There's this weird sequence in the middle when bulky, full-mustached Genji is on a blind date with a girl who actually looks like a schoolgirl, and Western audiences might not be sure how to react - are we supposed to take it at face value of this being a mis-match because the guy is ugly, should we just overlook the fact that it looks like he could be this teenage girl's father, or is this some sort of gag on how Japanese movies often seem cast high-school boys with actors five years older than the actresses playing high-school girls? That segment lands with a thud, which is unfortunate, because a lot of the other jokes work.

Full review at EFC.

Trailer Park of Terror

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

The director was candid during the Q&A following the film, saying that it took the various groups trying to develop the Trailer Park of Terror comic as a movie several attempts before they hit on an approach that worked. And even then, they weren't totally satisfied with the approach they wound up taking - they really tried to avoid making it a movie where six teenagers take a wrong turn off the main road and... Well, you know. That's just what wound up working.

The detour they take in the rain leads to a nasty trailer park, one which disappears and reappears so that its ghoulish residents can take more victims. The "queen" of the park is Norma (Nichole Hiltz), who once aspired to leave the place but instead wound up making a deal with the devil (Trace Adkins) to kill its residents, only to find herself trapped with them forever. The latest bus to have mechanical troubles contains Pastor Lewis (Matthew Del Negro) and the six troubled teens he's been at a retreat with: Gothy Bridget (Jeanette Brox), wiseass Alex (Ryan Carnes), gay Michael (Ricky Mabe), sex addict Amber (Hayley Marie Norman), porn addict Jason (Cody McMains), and drug fiend Tiffany (Stefanie Black). They run into Norma, who seems like the only one there, but the trailers she sends them to are occupied by ghouls far less gregarious than her.

There are plenty of wonderful people who live in trailer parks; as you might expect, none will be featured here. The residents of the park are pretty disgusting human beings when we first meet them in a prologue, and Timothy Dolan's script has fun translating every trailer-trash stereotype they can think of into a worthy horror-movie villain fitting with the theme. You get the junkie, the slut, the morbidly obese woman, and the small-time crook. The most stomach-churning is probably Ed Corbin's Sgt. Stank, who probably made his homemade jerky from roadkill before death gave him a new calling.

Full review at EFC.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

So here I am, back in Montreal to just have some vacation time that feels like vacation rather than work of any sort, and what am I doing? Trying to get a movie review written and posted before eating breakfast, just like during Fantasia. What is wrong with me? Well, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is fantastic and I want people to see it. It's playing at the Brattle through Monday, and I encourage everyone to give it a look.

Beneath that review, the dozen Fantasia reviews for EFC that I've completed since coming home. The scary part is that there are still at least that many more I'd like to finish before they fall out the back of my head completely.

Anyway - to touristy stuff!

Toki o kakeru shôjo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagements)

Yasutaka Tsutsui's novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time has been made into a movie twice before, and I must admit that I'm curious to see at least one of them - there are apparently connections with the 1983 version that position this animated film from 2006 something in between new adaptation, remake, and sequel. Not that it's necessary at all; it's just nice to know that a movie as good as this version has something else connected to it.

We start with Makoto Konno, an average high-school girl who is having a bad day: She sleeps through her alarm, arrives at school to a pop quiz, somehow makes her tempura blow up in home ec, etc., etc. The worst is when the brakes on her bike fail, causing her to flip over a barricade, into the path of an oncoming train. Somehow, just before it hits her, she somehow finds that it's a couple minutes in the past. Her aunt Kazuko says she's "time leapt", and it's not uncommon. Makoto is skeptical, but that doesn't prevent her from trying to repeat the phenomenon. When she does, she finds she's able to undo much of her bad day, although doing so introduces many complications, especially in regards to her best friends - handsome Kousuke, baseball-loving Chiaki (whom everyone but Makoto realizes has a huge crush on her), and soft spoken Yuri (who is fond of Chiaki herself).

I'm sure there are people out there capable of disliking Makoto, even though I have a hard time imagining doing less than adoring her. She tends to extremes as much as any real teenager - brash at times, but with paralyzing self-doubts at others. She's kind of tomboyish (playing baseball with Kousuke and Chiaki is her favorite thing to do), scatterbrained and intimidated as heck at the idea of choosing her future academic track, which could determine the rest of her life. She's also brave enough to take the lead when she sees something that needs doing and generous enough to try and help her friends as well as herself. I love her character design, all awkward skinny legs and arms, and a short haircut that still seems to be out of her control, like she never has time to tend to it properly. She can go from gleeful cackling to frozen stunned silence in an instant and always look right, and Riisa Naka's voice is absolutely perfect for her.

Indeed, it's not often that an animated character comes together quite so perfectly as she does, considering that what is often the work of one performer in a live-action film must be accomplished by many people working months apart with just the director to tie them together. It probably works best this way, though: Some of the slapstick, like Makoto's uncanny knack for crashing into things when she leaps, would look too painful in live action. She's got a bit of Wile E. Coyote in her, as well as a bit of Charles Schulz - she cries in a big, open-mouthed way, just like Sally Brown, for instance. Director Mamoru Hosoda doesn't overdo it on the cartooniness or other visual overload - after Mokoto's first, mind-blasting encounter with non-linear time, he's rather restrained in terms of not using a lot of "effects"; we don't even ever actually see Mokoto disappear or reappear.

What I like most about this movie, perhaps, is that although it's about teenagers, it's about them in a way that maybe you have to be an adult to fully understand. There's a point in the middle of the movie where bits of the sci-fi plot device become clear, and we realize that even though her newfound ability allows her to double back, she's also allowing opportunities to fly by her in the way that people her age do but don't realize they're doing until much later. It's a clever little observation that the movie doesn't quite make explicit, but allows to stay somewhat hidden behind the more teen-friendly "go for it!" message. Also impressive is how screenwriter Satoko Okudera is able to wring clever time-travel plot twists from the same device afterward without undercutting the metaphor, as even the most gifted writers are wont to do.

It's not quite a perfect script - some of the bits about time travel and the future don't quite mesh as well as one might hope, or imply things that run counter to the movie's mood. Those bumps are more than countered by how fleshed-out all the characters are, how funny the action is and how poignant its thoughts on young love are - especially as it doesn't try to make the teen years some idealized thing they aren't. It's a story about time travel, sure, and even one that gets a bit caught up in its own mythology by the end, but in a world that is both hilariously and achingly familiar.

(Note: The print shown was subtitled, although there is apparently also a dubbed print making its way around. I'm sure the English-language version is perfectly nice, but I have a hard time imagining it improving on Riisa Naka's voice acting.)

Also at EFC.

Pi li shi jie (Disciples of the 36th Chamber)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Part of the reason the Shaw Brothers studio was able to turn out so many enjoyable martial arts flicks was that they ran their studio like a factory: They were the very epitome of not messing with success. Take Disciples of the 36th Chamber, part of a series of Shaolin martial arts stories. I happened to see the first in the series, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, as part of a Shaw Brothers retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive about a month earlier. It was a ton of fun, but you can't help but notice this second sequel follows the same template.

This time around, Gordon Liu's San-te is the monk rather than the rebellious student; for that role, we have Hsiao Ho playing a young Fong Sai-yuk. Sai-yuk is arrogant, and like San-te before him, offends the ruling Manchus, eventually escaping to the Shaolin temple where he is taken in as a secular student (the "36th chamber" of the title). Unlike San-te, who found enlightenment studying with the monks, Sai-yuk merely becomes impatient, and begins to sneak out of the temple in order to test himself against the Manchu fighters. The governor (Jason Pai) befriends him, and invites him and the other 36th chamber students to a state wedding. It's an obvious trap, but Sai-yuk may be too proud to recognize it.

If you've seen The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (and, likely, the first sequel, Return to the 36th Chamber), that story is very familiar; it's almost exactly the plot of the first, down to the main character being mocked as a student by the children in the opening scenes. If you've seen almost any Shaw Brothers martial arts film, the film will look familiar; the studio had a number of standing sets and didn't vary their production design much. The main thing that sticks out about this movie is the humor; while the original movie was a fairly serious affair, Hsiao Ho's Fong Sai-yuk is a class-clown type, always ready with a wisecrack and bit of slapstick whenever there's someone stuffy in the area.

Full review at eFilmCritic.

Jack Brooks, Monster Slayer

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Someday, I'd like to run a controlled experiment with a movie like Jack Brooks, Monster Slayer. Group A, the control group, sees it more or less cold. Group B sees with the filmmakers in attendance, talking about how they love horror movies, especially from the eighties, so this was a labor of love, working with Robert Englund was awesome, and talks up how they did as much as they could with practical effects rather than CGI. Group C also sees it with the filmmakers in attendance, but they talk about how they really want to make classier stuff, but a kitschy horror movie is a relatively cheap way to make a film that will likely get some sort of distribution on video in part because of a B-movie star with name recognition. Oh, and they used CGI for everything, but because of their budget it wound up just looking like crappy-ass puppets. All three see the same movie, but which group do you think rates it highest and lowest?

We can guess at the answer based on human nature. The point of this thought experiment is not that Jack Brooks, Monster Slayer is a bad movie and the people who say they like it are horror fanatics who want to like it because the filmmakers have sold it as coming from like-minded fans, and they're being taken for a ride. That's not the case at all - Jack Brooks isn't a bad movie, and I don't think there's anything less than genuine about the enthusiasm that went into it. It's that even more than most films, what the audience gets from the likes of this is what they bring to it.

What's the film itself bring? Jack Brooks (Trevor Matthews), who as a kid saw his family killed by some sort of bigfoot troll. Now he's got major anger management issues - the kind that make his shrink (Daniel Kash) reluctant to see him - and a girlfriend, Eve (Rachel Skarsten) that really doesn't seem compatible with a low tolerance for aggravation. He and she are taking night classes at the local high school, including a science class taught by Professor Crowley (Robert Englund). One night Jack goes out to Crowley's secluded home to do some work on the pipes, which are filled with something nasty - something nasty which soon possesses Crowley.

Full review at eFilmCritic.


* * (out of four)
Seen 6 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre J.A. de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

I'm not one to say that there are certain subjects that are untouchable, or can't be made to fit into a certain genre, in part because I've seen too many counterexamples. Still, there are some where filmmakers would be well-advised to think long and hard about what they're doing, domestic violence being pretty high on the list. Punch Lady may get points for doing something more interesting than the standard melodrama, it quickly loses them for a constant stream of incredibly questionable decisions.

Ha-eun (Do Ji-won) is the woman being beaten as the film opens, and if that's not bad enough, husband Ju-chang (Park Sang-wuk) does this for a living: He's a mixed martial arts champion. This time, he doesn't just focus his rage on Ha-eun, but their daughter (Choi Seol-ri), which finally gives Ha-eun the impetus to clock him with some furniture and get out of there. She moves in with a friend, and is soon approached by her high-school boyfriend, now also an MMA hopeful, who invites her to watch his fight against her husband. This is disastrous, as Ju-chang beats him so badly that he dies in the hospital later on, leading to Ha-eun making a scene at Ju-chang's press conference that results in her challenging him to a fight three months down the line. No gym wants to take her on until she wanders into one run by Soo-hyeon (Son Hyeon-joo). In actuality, Soo-hyeon is her daughter's math teacher, and was intending to turn the gym into a day-care center until Ha-eun showed up offering a not-insubstantial amount of money. Of course, Soo-hyeon knows nothing about martial arts.

Many movies have some shaky elements, but it's hard to remember any as thoroughly and willfully stupid as Punch Lady. Consider the premise: Ju-chang kills Ha-eun's old/new boyfriend in the ring, and he wasn't giving up nearly as much size, strength, and skill as Ha-eun would be. The idea that this fight could be anything but a slaughter is, thus, patently absurd. Heck, the very idea that the MMA governing body would touch it with a ten-foot pole is ridiculous, as there are basically two potential outcomes: They either televise a man pummeling (and likely killing) his wife, which can't possibly be good publicity, or by some miracle their champion is beaten by a petite fifty-kilo woman. Both of these are outcomes any reasonably competent business man can foresee and want no part of, but this bit of logic is passed right by.

Full review at eFilmCritic.

Negatibu happi chenso ejji (Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Funny thing about fantasy entertainment - we get so caught up in the forms and mythologies and visuals of them, that we often seem to forget just why fantasy exists. "Escapism" is a word we throw around, but it's generally meant to refer to the audience, rather than the characters, even though they're likely the ones who need an escape.

Start with Yosuke (Hayato Ichihara). He's a fairly ordinary high school student who has been sneaking out of his dormitory more ever since his buddy Noto (Haruma Miura) died. One night, he comes across Eri (Megumi Seki), a beautiful but morose girl who engages in a nightly battle with a giant chainsaw-wielding maniac; it's a good thing she has a fuku filled with throwing knives to go along with preternatural strength, reflexes, and fighting skills. Yosuke is immediately taken with her, and starts trying to help. Naturally, he's in the way more than he's actually useful, but after a while she seems to be glad to have him around.

I admit it - I was there for the pretty girl fighting a gigantic marauder that fell from the sky with a chainsaw. I imagine most of the audience was, and I doubt many of us were wondering why Eri was fighting this guy aside from how he might be putting the citizens of Tokyo in peril and what arcane agency had bestowed powers upon her; the smitten but ineffective sidekick just seemed like comic relief. So it wound up being kind of a surprise - though a pleasant one - that these wound up being mere details that would eventually fade into the background. Negative Happy Chain Saw Edge has monsters and action scenes, yes, but it's not about them; it's about how Yosuke and Eri cope with loss, and the feelings of being powerless and lonely that accompany it.

Full review at eFilmCritic.

What We Do Is Secret

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Music doesn't interest me nearly as much as movies do, and I grew up on the East Coast besides, so it's not exactly surprising that I'd never heard of short-lived (but apparently influential) Los Angeles punk band The Germs and their leader Darby Crash. So perhaps it's a bit of an indictment that, after seeing What We Do Is Secret, I have no interest of hearing of them again. The fans seemed to enjoy it, though, so it's doing something right.

The Germs were a late-seventies band started by "Darby Crash" (Shane West) in high school. He started it with his friend George (Rick Gonzalez), who would take the stage name "Pat Smear". They advertised for bandmates, eventually meeting "Lorna Doom" (Bijou Phillips) and what would become a revolving door of drummers, notably including Don Bolles (Noah Segan). There's something there, but with Darby's charisma comes an incredible tendency toward self-destruction. There's the usual drugs, but also cutting himself on stage, inciting the audience to riot, and playing the band and the fans against each other. It's no wonder that at one point they're considered the hottest band in L.A. but have to book their gigs under a different name because no club will touch them.

There are, it seems, two basic rock and roll biopic templates; both of them involve a talented young musician whose emotional fragility is exacerbated by drugs, the only question being whether or not he beats the habit in the end. Fans know and the rest will quickly deduce that Crash is, as one might expect from the name he chose for himself, on the path of Icarus. There is something fascinating about seeing an otherwise intelligent, capable person seemingly committed to making things worse for himself and everyone around him, and this story certainly delivers plenty of downward-spiraling.

Full review at eFilmCritic.

Idiots and Angels

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival, Animated Auteur Visions)

Idiots and Angels is Bill Plympton's new film. For fans of the artist and many animation enthusiasts, this bit of information is all that really needs to be said when it comes down to deciding whether or not to give the movie a look. For those who are less devoted, it's good Bill Plympton. For those who are less familiar with the man, well, there's the rest of the review.

Plympton's style should be familiar, even if his name isn't necessarily so: It is most definitely cartooning, with caricatured body types in two dimensions. Though at least partially created with digital tools, it still retains the look of being drawn with colored pencils, with a frequently low frame rate and a fondness for gags that are a little on the gross side. It's about as far from what Chuck Jones used to call "animated radio" as can be, with dialog frequently either absent or deliberately garbled. His last feature, 2004's Hair High, was something of a departure from this, with narration and several speaking parts. Idiots and Angels pretty much dispenses with words, so it's something of a return to form in that sense.

It follows a patently unpleasant man who smashes his alarm clock and throws things at chirping birds in the morning, and will happily threaten lethal force to take a favored parking space; he sells black market guns from in a local bar. One morning, though, he awakens to find bony stubs growing out of his back, and despite his attempts to cut them off, they eventually grow to become a pair of angel's wings. Soon everybody he meets is trying to exploit his unwelcome additions, which he would just like to be rid of, as they seem to have a disturbingly altruistic mind of their own.

Full review at EFC.

Sekai de Ichiban Utsukushii Your (The Most Beautiful Night in the World)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

It's probably not wise to expect a movie to be both provocative and wise. The idea that Daisuke Tengan proposes in The Most Beautiful Night in the World is crude and simplistic, and he drives it home with some anything-but-subtle imagery; my initial reaction was that it was horrible and would be a disaster. That doesn't make the basic idea unworthy of consideration, though.

In the present day, junior-high student Midori (Haruki Ichikawa) is preparing, along with much of her village, for a trip to Tokyo to be honored by the Prime Minister for the village having the highest birth rate in Japan. She is writing a letter to a famous reporter on the surprising story of how this came to pass. Fifteen years earlier, a big-city reporter by the name of Kazaya Mizimu (Tomorowo Taguchi) arrived in town, exiled from Tokyo for a scandal. The local editor (Shiro Sano) despairs of anything interesting ever happening there, though Mizimu figures something must eventually happen with the colorful cast of characters he finds: There's Shineko (Michie Ito), a child-like woman who people treat like a moron; she's secretly a genius but allergic to stupidity; she assists her father Gonzo (Akira Emoto), a fisherman and would-be musician. There's Nihei (Ryo Ishibashi), a former Marxist terrorist whose interests now run to archeology, particular the ancient Jomon people, famed for their unusually strong sex drive. Local Shinto priest Pontus (Takeshi Wakamatsu) operates an island brothel; the local bar is owned by Teruko (Sarara Tsukifune), who lived in the city for a time and is reputed to have psychic powers and/or belong to a cult.

It's an interesting group, and Kaname Village is a nice place to have them bouncing off each other. It's one of those small movie towns with bicycles and bridges, where even the residents who only briefly interact with the main characters have some sort of memorable quirk. It takes on a bit of the appearance of a fairy tale, something that can be partially attributed to the young narrator. Everyone and everything is very distinctive - Mizimu is very earnest, Teruko is sexy but sophisticated relative to the locals; her bar is dumpy, noirish, and spooky depending on the needs of the moment.

Full review at EFC.

Gidam (Epitaph)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre J.A. de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Epitaph is one of the busiest horror films I've seen lately, starting in 1979 before flashing back to 1942, offering up ghosts and serial killers and obsessions that may or may not be connected in ways other than happening in close proximity to each other. It's got its moments, some of them excellent, but not enough to forgive a somewhat weak story.

Or three stories, as the case may be. Though the film starts with an elderly Dr. Park Jung-nam (Jeon Mu-song) delivering a lecture about a WWII-era surgery, he only figures prominently in one of the stories that unfolded at Anseng Hospital in 1942: As a young intern (Jin Goo) betrothed to a Japanese girl he only vaguely remembers from childhood, he's assigned to assist Dr. Kim In-young (Kim Bo-kyeong) in the morgue, where he becomes obsessed with a beautiful Jane Doe found drowned in a nearby river. Elsewhere in the hospital, Dr. Lee Soo-in (Lee Don-kyu) finds himself bonding with Asako (Ko Joo-yeon), a silent five-year-old girl who is the sole survivor of an automobile accident that claimed both her parents (and who may be haunted literally as well as figuratively). As if that's not enough, In-young - who aside from being a coroner is also the wife of Dr. Kim Dong-won (Kim Tae-woo), Asia's most brilliant neurosurgeon - is also being consulted on what appears to be a serial killer attacking officials of the occupying Japanese forces.

Much of the trouble with Epitaph is its structure. It's sort of an anthology film, with the three stories mostly told in self-contained chunks, although there is a fair amount of overlap between them - too much for them to be cleverly linked but basically separate, but not enough for the three to merge into one story. It's a structure that works fine for a lot of more conventional dramas, but fantasies require the audience to consider rules other than those of human interaction, which don't always line up here: What we learn about ghosts in story A doesn't necessarily apply to story B, even though they're otherwise tied too closely for that.

Full review at EFC.

Tenten (Adrift In Tokyo)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre J.A. de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Every time I see a new one, I wonder why there aren't more movies made using the same template as Adrift in Tokyo. It's a deceptively straightforward one - two people walking through city streets, talking and getting to know each other - for every beautiful Before Sunrise or Quiet City, there's probably a dozen that are numbing story-free torture. Just because what Satoshi Miki and his cast do here is simple doesn't make it easy.

Here we have Fumiya Takemura (Jo Odagiri) and Aiichiro Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura). Takemura is an aimless college student with gambling debts; Fukuhara is the man sent to collect them. Surprisingly, Fukuhara offers Fumiya another option; he'll forget about the money if the younger man will accompany him on a walk across the city. At the end, when they arrive at what Fukuhara says is the best police station in the city, Fukuhara will confess to the accidental death of his wife.

I love movies shot like Adrift In Tokyo, on authentic city streets that have something in common with city streets everywhere but still give a feeling of being unique to that neighborhood. They aren't necessarily the places tourists take pictures, and we probably haven't seen them in other films. It's fun to play tourist that way, and when the unexpected happens - as it often does in Satoshi Miki's film - it seems both more surprising and more believable, because those scenes seldom look staged to start.

Full review at EFC.

Wicked Lake

* (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I grew up in Maine, where comedians can build entire routines out of how we use the word "wicked". For us, it's usually an adverb that means "very", as in "wicked cool". In some spots, you can drop the "cool" part and have something that means "awesome". It is more properly used to mean "evil" or "improper/sinful but enticing". Sadly, the movie Wicked Lake is none of those things. It probably intends to be the last one, but is more often closer to "evil". That's not fair to it, though - making an awful movie isn't actually monstrous, after all.

It is calculated, of course, in much the same way as the other movies Media Blasters/Fever Dreams was promoting at the festival. It's a Frankenstein's monster of a movie, based on what's been shown to correlate with high sales for non-sequel direct-to-video horror: More blood and guts than a movie that cares about an R rating can use and naked girls (even better if they're making out!), I imagine, are the first things on the list. Quality writing and acting are much lower. A couple names with horror movie credentials will help, too, but Frankenstein is on a budget, so figure out the point below which crappiness hurts sales and stay a few bucks above that.

Giving the creation a soul is a difficult thing, though those other movies had a little more success. With Machine Girl, they had a filmmaker with a track record of making giddy exploitation at the helm; I haven't seen Tokyo Gore Police, but the description promises something new and creatively gross every few minutes and some talented people involved. Wicked Lake, on the other hand, has a thoroughly generic screenplay by the director of I Know Who Killed Me: Four hot lesbian witches (though only two actually contribute to the story) take a road trip to a mountain cabin to perform some sort of ritual only to have to deal with the nasty redneck family of Caleb (Mark Senter), the dork who has a crush on Ilene (Robin Sydney), some more jerks they meet at a gas station on the way, and a pair of perhaps overzealous cops investigating some nasty murders.

The story plays out in painfully predictable and lame ways: Just about every man is a pig and a thug; the ones that aren't are cowardly and ineffectual at standing up to the rest. There's not a character in the movie that isn't made out of purest cardboard, and the witches don't come off as much better than the guys. Ilene's girlfriend Helen (Eryn Joslyn), the leader of the group, manages to be enough of a bitch to taint the entire group, so that when the white trash shows up and starts tying people up and threatening sexual assault, it results on the audience not having sympathy for anyone, especially since the other two are vicious like they've had practice when an opportunity arises to turn the tables.

Full review at EFC.

Chanbara Beauty (Oneechanbara)

* * (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I've spoken to people who claim that the story is the most important part of a video game, which strikes me as silly, mainly because it makes them less like games. When you play basketball, are you acting out a plot? Besides, the storyline that is considered a strength within a game is often exposed as pretty weak when transplanted to a medium like film.

To be fair, it's not as if the action movies always offer that much more. In both, we're often brought up to speed fairly quickly: The world in general and Japan in particular have been overrun with zombies. One of the survivors is Aya (Eri Otoguro), the last member of a secret ninja clan, who is on a quest to find Dr. Sugita (Taro Suwa); Sugita is the cause of zombie plague and has Aya's teenaged sister Saki (Chise Nakamura) as an ally. Aya has a chubby sidekick, Katsuji (Tomohiro Waki), who is also looking for his little sister Asami; they meets up with Reiko (Manami Hashimoto), who is looking for her daughter.

For either a videogame or a b-movie, that's probably just enough plot to glue together a few zombie attacks and lead up to a "boss" stage where Aya finally confronts her sister and Sugita. The thing is, in a really good video game or action movie, the action scenes would be much more exciting because you're either the player controlling the main character or watching folks who are really good at action go to work. Neither is the case here; the zombie effects and CGI are fairly unimpressive, and Eri Otoguro is not Michelle Yeoh: I'm guessing that looking good in the costume was a much larger factor in her casting than the ability to sell a good fight.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

One of the few things I miss about living in the suburbs versus the city is that it's difficult for me to keep a dog. My family had them while I was growing up, and I envy my brothers with their dachshunds and labs. Pets do become a part of one's family, and that simple fact is what makes Red compelling; most of us can sympathize with a man defending their family, even when it comes down to wanting justice for the four-legged members.

Red is an old dog belonging to Avery Ludlow (Brian Cox), the mostly-retired owner of the local general store. One morning, he and Red are out fishing when three teenagers come upon him, carrying a gun and looking for money. Avery doesn't have much on him, which displeases the boys; the ringleader, Danny McCormack (Noel Fisher) takes his anger out on Red, shooting the old dog dead. When Avery gets back to town, he's looking for justice, but his attorney friend Sam (Richard Riehle) has bad news - according to the law, Red was merely property, with destruction of property being a misdemeanor, and Danny's father Michael (Tom Sizemore) is one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in town. Avery is undeterred, so Sam decides to bring in Carrie Donnel (Kim Dickens), a reporter for a nearby TV station, in the hopes that shaming the McCormacks will lead to Danny admitting his responsibility. Instead, things begin to escalate.

That the audience will get more angry at a dog's death than a person's is a cliché in movies, of course, to the point where even the rebelling against it has become tiresome - the audiences applauding a dog's killing in a horror movie is by now a merely (ironically?) Pavlovian reaction, rather than delighted shock that a filmmaker is willing to do something others shy from. It's a cliché that comes from a real place, though, and this movie earns its use: It shows us Red as Avery's constant companion, and peppers the rest of the film with other dog lovers, casually or forcefully reminding the audience of the bond a person and his dog share whenever the audience might think Avery should just let it go.

Full review at EFC.