Only God Forgives: Something Different

Nicholas Winding Refn returns to the screen with a Thailand thriller crafted from the same DNA as his recent film, Drive, including moody atmosphere, sparse dialog, and of course Ryan Gosling. Many fans of Drive looked forward to this, myself included, but with harsh critical thrashing and a non-existent release how could it possibly hold up to the same caliber? The simple answer is that it doesn’t, but that’s okay.

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This movie is an odd bird that makes a whole lot more sense when you realize it’s dedicated to Refn’s mentor, Alejandro Jodorowsky, of The Holy Mountain and El Topo fame. Once that part clicks the whole film stops being a slightly confusing romp through a cinematic LSD trip and more like an homage to Jodorowsky’s confusing and trippy arthouse flicks steeped in symbolism. Many critics have accused this of being artistically pretentious but I think they’re viewing this movie in the wrong context: instead of looking at this like a high production value student film they should be viewing it as a director exploring the edges of his range. It’s like my review for Beyond the Black Rainbow: the execution may be flawed but the concept and lasting effect  is enough to give the film credit. Even if I ended this with a simple “Hmm, that’s different” the fact remains that I was thinking about the movie more and more the day after. In fact, I had a stronger recollection of the scenes and visuals than I did with Pacific Rim (and I love big robots). Then again that could be simply because the scenes were so static they actually burned into my retina.

The Eye Candy

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Speaking of burning retinas, your rods and cones will be tested to their limit thanks to the inky shadows cut with bright neon reds and blues. The whole movie highlights the sleazy night club life of Thailand’s slums which somehow separates itself from mimicking a set from Blade Runner. Refn’s cinematic eye, augmented by Larry Smith who also worked with Refn on Bronson, is shown possibly at its strongest in this film which is why most critics concedes the cinematography is the saving grace of this movie. While it’s a style that’s familiar with Refn’s past films, it’s also a style that is in harmony with the Asian films this draws influence from. Your eyeballs feel greasy and you’re curious if you just caught some kind of disease just by looking at the wonderfully grime-stained frames.

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It’s not just the color palette though, it’s the composition itself. Like many modern Asian films, the camera steps back and takes a voyeuristic view in wide shots where everything is set on a very flat angle. Many shots feature characters dead center among a carefully planned set design which frames them and help create the mood. In any other film this would be seen as primitive and simple but somehow it works here. It shows you don’t have to use a bunch of extreme close ups and dutch angles to make a shot interesting.

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I hate saying this because I hate it when people use directors in this way but it’s almost Kubrick in its design. Feel free to dress me down for saying that, but I really feel Kubrick would have shot the film in a similar way.

Sex and Violence

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This film is steeped in intense violence and raw sexuality. The weird part is that the graphic portrayal of both elements is restrained. It’s not even the case this movie uses subtext or implications all that much, there’s just this feeling of primal lust and brutal savagery in scenes that are otherwise just two people talking. This sense is created by incorporating very strange but somewhat refreshing relationships into the film, from Gosling’s bondage based relationship with an entertainer to the reverse-Oedipus complex exhibited by his mother. The cinematography plays a big role in this as well. It’s as if someone passed a script to a 1970’s pornographer and asked him to make an arthouse film. Most of the scenes feel like they should have accompanying saxophone music to get you into the mood.

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Then you have the same uniquely brutal yet rare violence that Drive featured which helped give you a sense that the characters in this movie are very, very dangerous. There’s an intensity built up because you know the potential of how far characters are willing to go, but when a violent scene finally occurs it’s usually a snap in time. Don’t worry though, it’ll make you cringe in sympathetic pain.

A Group of Unrelatable People

I’m going to come out and say that just because a character is an asshole and you don’t like him does not make him a bad character. This is one of my biggest pet peeves in criticizing a film. It’s one thing if a character is unbelievable, which these characters ride the very fine line of being, but don’t dismiss a film because you didn’t feel bad or agreed with a character. Lots of movies have characters like this that we still adore, some we love because they’re jerks. That all said, no one in this film is going to win any awards for being a good Samaritan.

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Ryan Gosling plays as Julian, a drug dealer who is seeking out who murdered his brother. At least this is what the film summary says on many websites. It’s pretty misleading, because you almost never see Julian engage in any drug dealing and he solves the murder mystery pretty quickly and washes his hands of it. The drug dealing, really, is putty to cover the plot hole of why this white family led by a otherwise inexplicably powerful kingpin mother has any business in Thailand anyway. Instead Gosling is playing a character who is wrestling with deep emotional scars of his past which leaves him feeling that his own hands are not a part of his body. You’ve got to read into that last part because the actual acting was the same we saw in Drive: static face brooding slightly until he says a line. It’s okay though, I didn’t think his character needed to be anything more than an inanimate line deliverer because it made the unusual moments when he was emotional or passionate shock that much more.

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Vithaya Pansringarm (try saying that three times fast) plays opposite of Gosling in the role of a ruthless, loose-with-the-law police officer who has a passion for slicing folk up with a sword and cutting the air with karaoke. “Chang”, as he’s called, is a classic hard-boiled character that’s very popular in Asian cinema. He has a unique brand of justice and he really doesn’t care what it takes to dish it out or the consequences of his actions. He’s very cold and emotionless, almost never creasing the muscles around his brow and lips through the entire film. Reminded me a lot of Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, a man of twisted conviction and inevitable follow-through.

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Kristin Thomas (The English Patient) plays as Julian’s mother, Crystal, who is the major drive of the plot as she swings her weight around to muck things up. A lot of viewers and critics alike hated her character but I loved it. She was heartless, blunt, and dropped several lines throughout the movie that completely take you by surprise. She’s powerful and she knows it, and it’s shown by the way she treats those around her, how she solves problems, even how she holds her cigarette that she’s never far from. The other aspect of her character that I feel is different is her attempts of sexual control that are never explicitly stated but you know something was going on between her and her sons. It’s vague enough that you can interpret it how you like, but I have a feeling Julian’s shame for his hands and strange sex life is a symptom of his relationship to his mother.

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The last major character to mention is the drop-dead gorgeous Yayaying Rhatha Phongam who plays as night club entertainer Mai. Her acting career is still budding and this movie didn’t exactly give her much development to work with but she’s still nonetheless an interesting character (and I’m not just saying that because of how she’s dressed). It’s hard to really decipher what her relationship is with Julian, exactly. It’s clear that they are not an actual couple but rather a business relationship but it’s unclear how much she feels for him, if anything. She’s an unfortunate character who is stuck in the middle of a big mess, having to deal with the emotionally damaged Julian and his impolite mother.

A Niche Audience

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I liked this movie, even if I didn’t like it as much as Drive. My feelings are pretty much the same as for Hong-jin Na’s The Yellow Sea: it’s not nearly as good as his taut and amazing entry film The Chaser but I felt he explored a new world and took some big risks in order to give us something new. Exact same here for Only God Forgives. Refn took the success of Drive and took it to the next level in his artistic vision. This means that most folk aren’t going to like it, especially since Drive has a very polarized fanbase, but it’s important for Refn to be a bit selfish and not care about what the audience wants and instead show us what he wants to make. I can really only recommend this film to people who really enjoyed Drive and/or Bronson and just want to see more of Refn’s slick style or people who love Asian thrillers. The film is guilty of enjoying it’s own shots too much and I wouldn’t be shocked if the script was a mere 20 pages. It’s liquor for your eyes and cold medication for your brain but, in the end, I’m fine with that. If anything it gave me the same appreciation for Refn as I have with Cosmatos and his film Beyond the Black Rainbow. It may not be perfect or even a step forward but I’m still very excited to see the next project in store for us.

Foodfight!: I can’t believe I ate the whole thing

Foodfight

Did he really say “You cold farted itch”?

I… I don’t…  I… What just happened?

I just spent 92 minutes watching the animated “kid’s film” known as Foodfight! by director/producer Lawrence Kasanoff (the guy responsible for all the Mortal Kombat movies) and my mind is completely scrubbed. Normally I try to lure you into reading more by not giving my full opinions until the end of the review but I’m coming right out with it: this movie is god awful. You have to understand that I love watching terrible movies but I think Foodfight! takes the cake. Yes, dear reader, even when compared to some of the most notoriously bad films of recent times such as The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, Troll 2, etc. Foodfight! might just rank up there as worst film of all time. I know that point is debatable but if I want to focus my judgmental laser I think it’s safe to assume this is the worst animated film of all time to ever hit theaters. Speaking of “hitting theaters” it’s impossible for me to talk about this film without talking about it’s history.

From Rags to Dirty Rags

Foodfight! comes to us courtesy of Threshold Entertainment (the guys who own the Mortal Kombat license) and C47 Productions (who I assume is the animation studio, but the only information I could drudge up is that it apparently is ran by Rebecca Wolcott who acts as both President of C47 and “Foodfight! Foundation” whatever the hell that’s supposed to be). Originally the film was set to be a 2003 Christmas film where I assume Kasanoff was “inspired” by the popularity of Toy Story and its 1999 sequel but decided to put the twist that instead of memorable children’s toys he would use corporate icons from supermarket goods. During development the film was criticized as being the incarnation of product placement targeted to children. Obviously none of us heard of the film releasing in 2003 because it was clear the movie was never going to make it out of the gate. Eventually the loan defaulted and Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company/International Film Guarantors auctioned off the rights and assets to the film in late 2011. Never one to turn down a cheap film, Lionsgate picked up the film for distribution where it hit UK and Russian theaters for a combined gross of only $73,706 (apparently it also played in Bulgaria, but no figures exist).

Great shot composition there.

Great shot composition there.

The “Cast”

At first glance, Foodfight! has quite a bit of star power; at least for a film destined to bring in less than a hundred grand. When you account for the era it was in development, however, you find a batch of mostly washed up talent who were willing to do anything. Most notable is Charlie Sheen who was coming fresh off the recently canceled Spin City, playing the lead character Dex Dogtective. His sidekick, Daredevil Dan, is played by Wayne Brady who was still dealing with his failed, eponymously-named show. Dex’s freakishly creepy love interest, Sunshine Goodness is helmed by Hillary Duff whose Disney show Lizzie McGuire was beginning to circle the drain. Finally the film’s villain, Lady X, was played by Eva Longoria  who I suppose was no longer relevant to The Young and the Restless. There are other somewhat big name actors playing bit characters such as Chris Kattan and Christopher Lloyd (be sure to watch the clip below) but I feel like mentioning their names is akin to pointing someone out in a police lineup. I don’t even know why I should bother talking about the acting talent, because it’s clear that it made no difference to the film.

It’s worth mentioning here that the film also features some of the most corny pop songs ever recorded by bands I’m sure don’t exist anymore.

God that face. Why don't your eyes move? Why do you have cat features when your box art doesn't?

God that face. Why don’t your eyes move? Why do you have cat features when your box art doesn’t? Why are your whiskers burn marks?

The “Animation”

Watch the clip below. I dare you. I double-dog dare you.

You see that? Did you pay attention to where arms and legs were going? This doesn’t even scratch the surface.  And yes that was Doc Brown you were hearing.

The animation in this movie is similar to what you might find in PFFR‘s Xavier: Renegade Angel or NEXT Media‘s animated news broadcasts, except that in both of these cases the animation is terrible on purpose. If you go back and rewatch the clip notice that the character’s movements have almost nothing to do with the voices, as if they were animated and recorded without any cooperation with each other. The exaggerated movements make silent films look deadpan by comparison, and while I understand that the intention was for more of a cartoony feel the film just goes overboard in every single gesture. I don’t know is this was batshit insane motion capture or hand animation from someone who doesn’t understand how people move, but it’s just plan tragic. Even the Canadian CGI shows of the late 90’s such as Roughnecks, Beast Wars, and ReBoot had smoother animations than this. It certainly ain’t going to compete with any Pixar film, that’s for sure.

Before you even make it to the 5 minute mark you know you’re going to be in trouble. Hell when the shoddily slapped together opening title card crashes onto the screen you know you’ve made a poor decision.

Wait. Is she wearing plaid gloves?

Wait. Is she wearing plaid gloves?

The “Story”

I don’t even know where to begin, it’s that bad. Sure, The Room had a bad story and so did Birdemic and Troll 2. All those films had contrived plots that made little sense and leaped to astronomically irrational assumptions, they all have poor writing that produces some of the most unintentionally hilarious quotes in film history, but when you really look at the whole picture you can actually watch these movies. I’m not saying you can enjoy yourself, but you can actually watch it and get a picture of what was going on. Foodfight! has as much of a story as a fever dream from eating three whole tubs of Red Vines and a fifth of Everclear can produce. As the minutes began to stretch from time dilation I lost touch with what the movie was about, who the characters were, where I was, who I was… I’ve never watched Yellow Submarine while suffering a bad blotter acid trip, but I imagine this experience is just as hallucinogenic and terrifying.

Good to see McZee from 3D Movie Maker is still getting work.

Good to see McZee from 3D Movie Maker is still getting work.

Whenever I try to think about the plot I suddenly wake up on the ground in a puddle of foamy spit and twenty five minutes of time missing, but here’s the basics: Dex is the city’s hero who wants to marry Sunshine who then vanishes inexplicably which causes Dex to quit crime fighting and start a bar but then Brand X comes in and the town starts goin t o waR so Deks musssssssssssssssssdxcxx

Sorry. It happened again. I can’t even go back to edit it because I value the remaining brain cells I have. Doesn’t matter anyway because the plot really makes no difference, it’s not what you’re going to focus on. You don’t care at all about any of the character’s plight or their role. The only thing you care about is the concept and the words tumbling out of their mouths.

The concept that a city is populated by corporate icons is barely held together by the combination of real icons such as Mr. Clean, Charlie Tuna, or the guy from the Hawaiian Punch label, fictional characters such as Dex Dogtective Cereal and Daredevil Dan chocolate candy, and blatent ripoffs that they couldn’t get the rights to like Choc Dracul (Count Chocula) or Polar Penguin (Chilly Willy). This mix wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact characters who play important roles are almost never explained and so you simply have to guess what product they represent and why their mannerisms are such. The dialog is not fit for human consumption; every attempt to slap a corporate jingle joke is taken no matter how serious the scene is and when not making some asinine pun they’re just rambling until the animation frames stop. Go back and watch that scene, pay attention to the words, see how long it takes for them to lose all meaning. On top of all this the film has an unusually heavy handed attempt to inject sex jokes and Nazi oppression into a kid’s movie. I’m not joking both of those things are in the film in equal portions.

Strong historical commentary is made when the French Cheese icon actually farts into the face of the German Brand X officer.

Strong historical commentary is made when the French Cheese icon actually farts into the face of the German Brand X officer. No, seriously, that’s what happens seconds after this picture.

The Wrap Up

Do I reccommend Foodfight! to the average movie-goer? Nope. I can only recommend this to people who want to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes and it goes mighty deep. Even connoisseurs of bad films might find it hard to trudge through this. You see most bad films that become cult classics are cult classics because the bad transcends traditional film critiques to become funny and entertaining. Foodfight! is neither of these things. In fact you might find a particular part of it offensive (for me it was the heavy handed Casablanca parody), but most will just find it a mixture of boring, lack of aim, and humor that couldn’t make a 5th grader chuckle.

Who the hell is that guy in the back? The old lady? The six-eyed alien?Why is the shot so awkwardly balanced? Who am I? What does it mean to "be"?

Who the hell is that guy in the back? The old lady? The alien with three pairs of sunglasses?Why is there no one on the right side? Who am I? What does it mean to “be”?

Don’t bother buying it or renting it, if you search Youtube you can find it if you’re so inclined, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

By the way, the title of this article is a play on the old Alka-Seltzer ad. Get it? Because the movie is all about corporate icons.

Forget it.

Cloud Atlas: Big Guns Shooting Wildly

What do you do when you want to make six movies but only have time for one? Combine them of course, but does it work? That’s the question boldly being answered by Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run and Perfume fame as well as Andy and Lana Wachowski of The Matrix trilogy. Unlike other films that try to tell a bunch of stories at once like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Cloud Atlas actually has rhyme and reason for doing so. I assure you it’s a far better looking and far more coherent film than any of the Transformer films, but the grand scheme and objectives of the film show a lot of strain caused by the filmmaking process.

It’s hard to talk about this like a normal film review, so I’m going to jump right into the meat of the story by breaking it up into its individual components. Be aware that the film jumps wildly back and forth between these stories and they are not presented in any particular chronological order.

The Past

The story “begins” with sick lawyer Adam Ewing on a voyage to San Francisco with Dr. Henry Goose and a stowaway slave. The tale is a classic of greed, hidden enemies, and newfound friendship in the context of early American slavery. The story works fairly well on its own two legs and out of the stories seems to show the most progression of its characters, it also forms a link to the next story in the chain through Ewing’s journal. There’s not terribly much else to say without spoiling things.

The Not So Past

A story about Robert Frobisher, a poor aspiring music composer in love with Rufus Sixsmith, working as an aid to famous living composer Vyvyan Ayrs (That’s a lot of diagonals for your buck). Here he composes what he calls the “Cloud Atlas Sextant” which finds itself floating in the films entire background. Out of the six stories this is certainly one of the stronger ones which not only tells a compelling story but also really ties strongly to the film’s concept of transcending time, life, and death. While Frobisher comes off a bit unlikable to start you really feel for his love with Rufus, which is consistent with the exception of one very out of place, straight from left field moment that had the whole theater awkwardly asking “Wait… what?” softly under their breaths. That moment aside, this story blends very well with the next step.

The Almost Present

Using Rufus as a link, the film travels to the hip 70’s which follows reporter Luisa Rey on an investigation of a power conspiracy. The story here very much fits a hard nosed detective story of intrigue and thriller moments, plus it begins to bulk up the film’s action set-piece quota with some shootouts and hip iconic cars (I chuckled when I saw a lookalike to Steve McQueen’s Mustang Fastback from Bullit or a Taxi Cab that likely wasn’t but could have been an homage to Taxi Driver). This story also helped “finish” the story presented between Frobisher and Sixsmith. Only real snag here was the story was at times distracted from what the overall goal of the movie was and “some kid” who showed up just to be a plot device.

The Present

I’ll cut to the chase, this was easily the strongest of the five tales. This story could have easily stood on its own and certainly held my attention the best. I often found myself wondering when we would next see the antics of Timothy Cavendish, a publicist who finds himself sticking his hand further and further into a hornet’s nest. There’s a strong tonal shift with this story, being almost slapstick comedy, but also a directorial shift. It almost felt like it was the Wachowski’s trying to imitate a Wes Anderson film without the distinct artistic style. Unfortunately to compound the issue raised by this shift, the Cavendish story had possibly the least to do with with rest of the stories. Sure there were some recurring themes and a callback dropped here and there, but there wasn’t much of a direct link to other stories. It felt more like, “This film is too serious, and it’s three hours long, enjoy this comedic break.”. I don’t care, though, I would definitely watch an entire film of this delightful bumbling but charming character.

The Future

Okay this is where the movie goes absolutely bananas. If there was any part of the movie that deserved to be axed it was this portion. Set in a future where South Korea has an undefined totalitarian society of genetic segregation, a test-tube created fast-food worker Sonmi-351 tries to escape in order to help a rebellion simply called “Union”. I’m sorry but this portion of the film always had me shaking my head in disbelief. It’s not downright awful but it does seem to cram the worst parts of Equilibrium and The Matrix sequels into a very cliche and summer movie action style science fiction story. All the cliches are present here: technobabble, strange ways of saying things, faceless enforcers wearing long black coats and motorcycle helmets, hovercars on “light-highways”, a strong message of consumerism, juice boxes that come in triangle boxes instead of squares, and to top it all off some pretty lousy uses of laser guns and pulling people back with wires during explosions. I might have been laughing too hard at the total shattering of realism (there’s a lot of moments you’ll find yourself asking “Why?”) but I was completely lost as to what this all had to do with the other past stories or even what the message was at first beyond a vague Soylent Green analogy and the classic fears of capitalism and eugenics that have been explored in science fiction to death. The sight of the fast food joint itself brings up haunting flashbacks of Speed Racer…

The FAR Future

So remember future South Korea I was talking about? Well now it’s gone and you’re left with a weird hybrid of a fantasy movie and Mad Max. Zachry is trying to survive as a simple goat farmer who inexplicably has settled and herds his goats where horseback riding maurader/cannibals patrol. Along the way Meronym comes along to find a set of ruins that will save her people from radiation or something. This is another weak link of the story as it really only connects to the future story as well as some brief fears of nuclear fallout presented in the 70’s story. It’s certainly not as bad as the last part of the story but somewhere it was decided that in the future we speak a very strange cockney dialect, like a drunken light form of Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange. I really had to concentrate hard to dechiper what the characters were mumbling and while I got the overall gist a lot of it was lost on me. This is the story the film opens with,an old Zachary telling a metaphorical tale in this weird altered language spoken in a low grumbly voice the microphones had trouble picking up. I don’t know, maybe I’m just deaf.

With that all out of the way we can look at the whole film as a whole and whether or not the components worked. If there’s anything to be said the production certainly tried its hardest to make it work. Given the high quality production and use of some very clever visual effects, as well as some very expensive ones, I was shocked to find the film only had a budget of $102M. It’s still a big chunk of change but given what the film accomplished it’s certainly a lot of bang for buck. If you ignore some of the oddities of the more futuristic scenes the overall film is very pleasing visually. Each story had a very distinct color palette appropriate to the era it was portraying, aided by the well designed art direction.

The biggest achievement of the film was in the makeup and costume design. All the actors appear through all the stories as various people and the challenge was to make them blend from one story to the next. This of course was to reinforce the idea of reincarnation and such but it was honestly more of a technical demonstration, but a very good one at that. Not only did characters change in age, but also in race and in gender. One minute Hugo Weaving is a corporate hitman, the next he’s Baron Samedi, soon he’s a Vulcan posing as a Korean, and then he’s a very Mrs. Doubtfire-like nurse. This last one put a smile on my face because I thought this was an homage to Priscilla Queen of the Desert. After realizing that most of the actors have a gender swap at some point in the film I realized this was more of a message or wink to Lana Wachowski who herself came out as transgender recently. I’m not upset by this portrayal at all, in fact it was fun trying to figure out who was who, but I was a bit bummed that it wasn’t likely a direct homage to Priscilla.  While the gender swapped worked fine even if it wasn’t 100% perfect, the race swapping was a bit more apparent. You find yourself trying hard to believe that one actor can appear Korean, or how another can appear Caucasian. In the end the makeup is a highlight of the movie and a positive point.

Bringing up Hugo is a nice lead-in to the rest of the cast. The star studded lineup includes, among Mr. Weaving, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Keith David, James D’Arcy, David G’Yasi and some small roles by Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. The cast all did an excellent job given the scope of what they set to accomplish. Any faults of the film that I’m complaining about had nothing to do with the acting talents. Understandably its quite a challenge to portray so many characters in one film but I get the feeling this was a big reason people signed up in the first place.

So why is it that I left the film feeling that it was “okay”? It looked nice, it was professionally done, I got my money’s worth, what was the problem? Cloud Atlas, simply, is a big blockbuster trying to pose as a cerebral arthouse film in the same vein as Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Malick’s The Tree of Life. I’m not criticizing Tykwer or the Wachowskis for trying to make a film with a deep meaning, I encourage them to, but this film shows that old habits die hard and their film backgrounds (especially in the case of the Wachowskis, I can almost pinpoint who had influence over what portions) came back to haunt them. The whole film is shattered by ham-fisted moments of monologues of deep philosophy being juxtaposed by brain-dead action scenes that roughly move together. The disconnected nature of the film left little time for meaningful arcs to develop among the characters, resulting in either binary changes in characters or barely any change at all. The film had a sort-of unifying arc but I’m hard pressed to explain it after only one viewing  They put all these stories and ideas into a blender and the end result is chunky and unsatisfying. Worst off is that the apparent message I was lead to believe the story was about by its trailer, that is a story about love and life’s transcendence through time, was barely a strong part of the film. I really felt it when watching Frobicher, but it felt slapped on for any of the other stories (especially the Cavendish tale).

I now know this was based on a novel, which I naturally haven’t read. I’m sure that by reading the novel I would gain a better understanding of what the film tried to accomplish in its three hour running time, but I really don’t think reading the source material should be required to enjoy a film. This also may be a case where a second, third, or even forth viewing would help both my understanding and my appreciation for the hard work done here. Maybe by catching some of the details that whizzed over my head I’ll be able to grasp the themes and message with more clarity; it took me several viewings of The Fountain to fully grasp it. But as far as an initial first-viewing it left me with a fairly apathetic view of the film. It was better than I expected it to be (It wasn’t nearly as pretentious as I thought), but it’s not going on any Top Ten list I don’t think.

Should you see it? Hard to say as this is going to be one of those movies that’s polarizing among audiences. I can already hear the screaming of fans telling me I’m too dense to understand, that I’m horrible at paying attention and should have gotten it all on one pass, but I think the majority of movie-goers are going to leave this one scratching their heads afterwards. Not in a “What if this is all a dream like Inception” kind of way but in a “What was the point” kind of way.

Beyond the Black Rainbow: Visual Madness

What happens when you collide Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with Alejandro Jodorosky’s The Holy Mountain? A very strange walk down a visual and audio based dream from newcomer director/writer Panos Cosmatos. But can visuals alone carry an entire film, even if it’s an art film?

Cosmatos, son of George Cosmatos (Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra, Tombstone), set out to create a very bold image that, despite the film being produced in 2010, harks back to the distinct feel of early 80’s science fiction. Considering the story of Beyond the Black Rainbow is set specifically in 1983, one could argue that this is a period piece, the vision of how the future would look from a past perspective. To cut to the chase, the film is certainly pleasing to the eye. Every frame could be used as a high art print, but watching them in motion can cause some viewers to grow tired of the tepid pacing.

Given the style Cosmatos is trying to emulate, it’s understandable why the pacing would be slower than usual, I personally understand every argument as to why the film is set the way it is. In an interview with CHUD.com, Cosmatos reflected that during the production of the film he was creating a film that he wanted to make and didn’t care how the audience would feel about it. While this sentiment is understandable to the nature of the media and what it means to be an artist and all those other arguments you heard in film school, Cosmatos himself even admits that once he actually watched the completed film he himself wasn’t sure exactly what he had made. I’m okay with this, it’s his first film, it’s his first script, he took a very bold move and accomplished his goal. As others have mentioned, his father went from directing lackluster action films to eventually making the acclaimed Tombstone, so if anything I’m already excited to see what this director has in store for us next. This does not, however, leave his first film untouchable.

In that same interview, Cosmatos joked that the script was only “11 pages” and people believed it. Despite the actual script running 86 pages, when watching the film it doesn’t feel like that at all. There is a lot of dead air accompanied only by the constant droning of the film’s score. Dialog is short, barely understandable, and only serves to nudge the story along bit by bit. A lot of people have criticized the film for lacking sense or cohesion but when you step back and look at the broad strokes it’s actually a really simple story: a girl is trapped in a futuristic asylum posing as a new-age therapy center, harassed by her obsessed doctor, and then she escapes. The end. Sure there’s a lot of things unexplained, mostly in the form of objects whose significance is never addressed (an ominous glowing pyramid that appears to nullify people, a tall man in a Daft Punk/Tron outfit, a “Sentinaut”, whose job apparently is to stand around until someone needs a tag inserted into them, a leather jacket and a strange knife/claw thing, a book containing crude drawings, etc.), or at the latent psychic abilities the female lead, Alena, seems to have, but these kind of things didn’t really need to be addressed as the basic plot was clear enough. I’ve heard the argument that both the pacing and unexplained nature of the film is to mimic the sensation of being heavily sedated as characters in the movie are, and I can see where that’s coming from but I think it’s more about learning how far to go in filmmaking. Cosmatos himself comments that his story was a bit more than he could manage and that he’s still learning the right balance. Unfortunately, the film is simply too slow with to much nothing in between. The visuals help distract you, but shots go on way longer than they should and it’s very difficult to fight the urge to check your phone or do something else while the film plays. In fact I think this movie would be perfect playing in the background of some San Francisco bar.

This is not to say the story is worthless. Cosmatos does accomplish some genuinely intense moments and very creepy scenes but the pacing kills whatever tension lead up or follows these moments. With some trimming and reworking, this film could be a great sci-fi thriller, all the pieces are there.

The film has few actors, with the role of Dr. Barry Nyle played by Michael Rogers and Elena played by Eva Allan. Michael, through necessity, carried the film by himself. He did a fine job in acting profoundly creepy and evident that he is just as whacked out on drugs and psychosis as any of the other patients at ARBORIA. You get the sense of his obsession with Elena early on and his transformation over the film includes one of those jaw-dropping moments I was talking about earlier (and, unfortunately, a very clumsy, cop-out way to end his story. I was actually upset.). Some people criticize his character as playing his cards on the table too early so we get no build up, but I think there was a progression of his madness that grew. In fact I would say this film is another piece of evidence in my claims that the protagonist is not necessarily the good guy, just the person who changes for better or worse. This is compounded by how one-dimensional Elena was. Speaking of Elena, Eva Allan did exactly what the role asked for, but the role was just her standing around looking cute in a depressed way and occasionally rolling her eyes into her head. There was more life, ironically, in all the other characters of the film.

Despite the slow-as-syrup story and the mostly lacking characters the film does one thing as perfectly as you could accomplish: Vision. I don’t mean just visually but the entire art direction of the film.  Despite having only a $1.1M budget this film has all the look of a professional Hollywood studio piece. Part of the magic of this movie is just how perfectly this could be slipped into a shelf of 80’s sci-fi and how it’s real age would go unnoticed. The execution of Cosmatos’ homage is flawless and no where is the illusion shattered by the use of inappropriate CGI, special effects, or other contemporary elements. His shot composition and framing only add to the nostalgic quality of the piece created by use of vintage post-processing. The score, a droning synthesizer beat by Jeremy Schmidt, helps lock in the era without running the risk of sounding too much like modern electronic music (though some argue the repetitive score furthers the dragging pace).

So what’s the end result? A film with an incredible amount of potential and stunning attention to detail dragged down by its agonizingly slow pacing. If you like trippy art films, or if you weren’t bothered by Daft Punk’s Electroma, of which the film is quite similar to, then I’d say give it a try. If 2001: A Space Odyessy bored the pants off you than I would just find a nice gallery of still shots or click through some of the scenes on YouTube and you’ll get the gist. I’m keeping a watch on Cosmatos, however, I’ve got a hunch we’re going to see something special from him in the future.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is currently avaliable on DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix.

The Cats of Mirikitani: Of Art and Scorn

“Jimmy” Mirikitani is a New York homeless artist, a victim of Japanese Internment in the 1940’s.  When the tragedy of 9/11 forces him out of his neighborhood, documentary editor Linda Hattendorf decided to take him into her own home. As she films him creating his artwork, she seeks to find Jimmy a suitable home. While investigating the options and asking Jimmy for details such as his Social Security information, she finds a man still deeply affected by the betrayal he endured even decades later.

The Cats of Mirikitani, which released in 2006, is an intriguing look not only in an eccentric old man but a reflection of America’s past and how it echoed in recent times. This is the kind of documentary that only one person in the world could have made, had it not been for Linda deciding to point a camera at Jimmy the world would have never known his tale.  The short version is that Jimmy, born in Sacramento, was an aspiring artist who blended eastern and western art styles into one unique form. As he aged his artwork began to reflect himself: it was rough, overly simplistic, using only the most simple and mundane supplies, and became obsessed with the Internment camp at Tule Lake (where Jimmy spent almost four years of his life) and the bombing of Hiroshima where he once visited as a child. Strangely enough, the title of the film is a bit off as it doesn’t focus on his artwork about cats. Yes, Miritikani makes a lot of artwork of cats, but even that is the scar of his experience in Internment as he tells the story of a boy who constantly asked for pictures of cats from Jimmy before he died in the camp. I think Linda was trying to make the connection that Jimmy had grown to be like an old cat who constantly mews for attention.

Mirikitani is charming, if not sometimes blunt. His quirks often bring a smile to your face as you watch him uprooting a plant from the Japanese Botanical Garden and telling Linda she could put it in a pot,  how at the movie rental shop he flips through movie after movie asking “Samurai?” until he finds such film, or how he sings to himself when no one else is around. As the film goes on though you learn more about Jimmy as he explains his history. You can feel a seething hatred for what the American government did to him and many other Japanese people, and it comes out in a very unusual fashion. Instead of some other people who, in the same position, might have tried to take as much as they felt entitled to, Jimmy constantly refuses to accept aid from Social Security or other government programs. He’s proud of his work and that his art earns him mostly what he needs to survive, but you can sense his strong pride coming through in his flat out denial of the government’s apology. He gets easily worked up and goes into diatribes about how white men assembled in a room and decided “Cut their citizenship” and “You want workers? Take these people.”, remarking about the renunciation of citizenship and forced labor. When most of the nation had forgotten about this stain in our history, it was all Mirikitani could think about.

There’s another element that made this documentary hit as hard as it did. I don’t think it’s fair to call it serendipitous, but the coincidence of the events is staggering. The film opens in early 2001, and very early on you know the documentary is going to have to tackle the subject of the 9/11 attacks. It becomes a ticking time bomb, title cards indicated the months getting closer and closer to the tragedy, the final one being in August when Jimmy is preparing to honor the anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima.  Linda tastefully discusses 9/11 in brief, narrowing it down to a simple montage of the events and not dwelling upon it more. The tragedy accomplished two things for the film, it propelled Jimmy into the story that fills most of the film when Linda offers him into her home, and the ensuing hatred that flamed up towards Middle-Eastern citizens by the American populace became a horrific reminder of the same hatred felt by those in 1941 after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Jimmy doesn’t draw comparisons, however, he just sits quietly watching the news as it talks about how most Americans felt those of Middle-Eastern decent should carry special identification cards, regardless if they were a US Citizen, or the many acts of violence that unfolded in the wake towards people not even remotely connected. The most important comment I can make on this is that Linda’s restraint to turn the film into a more social documentary than a personal one took some gusto and I think the film became stronger for it. Here the comparison acts as a simple reminder, something for the audience to mull over in their head and while hearing Jimmy’s story try and put themselves into the shoes of someone Middle-Eastern.

As far as the technical details go the documentary is a bit rough. The camera is of fairly low quality, something my own camera could produce, and the audio is roughly mixed to the point that, paired with Mirikitani’s strong accent, requires the use of constant subtitles. But the beauty of a documentary is that if the subject is as compelling as this then the flaws don’t matter. Not once while watching did I actually think “Ugh, I wish this was in HD” because it didn’t matter. This was likely filmed on Linda’s personal camcorder for home movies and she exercised the best use of it that she could muster given the resources. You’re not watching this for eye-gouging visuals, you’re watching to hear a story.

I’d highly reccomend this film to anyone interestd in documentaries. If you’re like me and you love to hear true-life stories and witness real human emotion than this is right up your alley. I was reminded a lot of 2010 film Marwencol. While the details were all different at its core we had someone who had an extreme passion for art because after a terrible tragedy it was all they had left in life to hold onto. At the time of this posting it is available through major retailers as well as through streaming services such as Netflix.

Capote: A Slow Sip of Fine Liquor

Capote, directed by Bennett Miller (of recent Moneyball fame) is one of those films that’s heavily geared for people interested in film. The acting and the visuals are things that might be taught in a film study course, but how does it hold up as an actual film itself?

I have been meaning to see Capote for quite some time. I remember spotting the trailer for it on a DVD back in 2005 and thought it seemed interesting as I was always intrigued by the whole story surrounding In Cold Blood and the author behind it (who had also penned Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Beyond that though I came into the film pretty much fresh off the street: I hadn’t heard anything about it good or bad, I hadn’t seen a single frame of the film beyond what was shown in the trailer years ago, and I hadn’t seen the film Infamousstarring Toby Jones, that hit the same exact subject the very next year. So I jumped right in.

The first thing I should mention off the bat is likely the biggest criticism you’re going to hear about the film: it’s slow. I have no problem with films that take their time and those who know me know how much I love The Assassination of Jesse James  which most people agree could be an hour shorter, but I could see very early on that the pacing of the film would be a problem to most. You could say it’s the hardest in the beginning, because we as the audience don’t have enough to actually care and pay attention to Capote. As the film continues on the pacing also picks up but not by much, but I’m going to argue that because of the style of the film the gentle pacing is appropriate. This is a movie that’s filled with a lot of questions that never receive an answer upfront, it uses the rule of “always end a scene on a question” to the fullest and really builds a mystery not only in the plot but in the characters.

Now since that’s out of the way I can address the blonde elephant in the room. Truman Capote, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is depicted in the film as an alcoholic with good intentions. Don’t be thrown off by my use of “alcoholic”, we very rarely see Capote completely shitfaced where he’s screaming at people and falling over. It’s no secret Capote was a drunk, it killed him in 1984, but the way the film shows this is subtle. Truman is charming, but at the same time a liar and extremely manipulative, which is a hallmark of many alcoholics. I found it refreshing (no pun intended) to see this as a strong element of his character, but not the entire build of it. Hoffman’s performance is certainly the main reason for seeing this film. He is transformed in his role as this effeminate, playful, and as I discussed moments ago, drunk. But at the same token Hoffman is able to demonstrate other sides of Capote such as his manipulation, his self-centered attitude to turn conversations towards himself, or his unique brand of affection. He really does become the character, not once throughout the film did I think of Hoffman as Hoffman. Never did I imagine him in other roles he’s done, not the least of which has been the phone-pervert from one of my favorite films Happiness.

Hoffman isn’t the only powerhouse to this film either. The role of murderer Perry Smith, played by Cliffton Collins Jr., was an excellent counter to Capote. In many ways the two characters are similar, both are very manipulative and know how to get what they want even if they aren’t aware they’re being manipulative. As Captoe says to friend Nelle Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird), it’s as if he and Smith grew up in the same house and then one day Smith went out the back door while he went out the front. This line drives a point home that both characters are very similar, but their methods and motivations are very different. Collins adds to the film the same powerhouse acting Hoffman does, both delivering great performances that I could easily see being studied and practiced by young aspiring actors.  I have heard that somare disappointed in Hoffman’s restraint to show a certain seduction towards Smith as has been done, apparently, in Infamous. I didn’t feel the same way, and while it’s not overt that Capote had love or affection towards Smith more than just a good friend, there are moments when the subtext comes out (such as when Lee flat out asks Capote if he has fallen for Smith, half in jest, and Capote dismisses it). Frankly, I didn’t need that layer to make this film any more compelling than it was, I was satisfied with this direction. What I wasn’t quite satisfied with was the one-dimensional roles for both Lee (played by Catherine Keener) or Capote’s partner Jack Dunphy (played by Bruce Greenwood), but I feel that might have had to do with the scope of the story which was primarily focused on Capote’s connection with Smith. Despite such a small role, Chris Cooper did very well as Alvin Dewey, the local Sheriff.

Capotehas the picture perfect style for a period piece. Not a single piece of dress or prop felt out of place, which much attention to make sure some props got special attention. Colors were muted but featured rich earth tones punctuated by deep blacks and washed out pastels, with only a short scene in Spain featuring any saturation of colors whatsoever. The cinematography, by Adam Kimmel who recently did Never Let Me Go, was again something that would be analyzed frame by frame by film students. His composition, lighting, framing, all painted a visually pleasing film. In addition to the color there was something I couldn’t place my finger on that helped recreate the feel of the time, the film wasn’t super crisp or extra sharp as cameras of the day were capable of doing, and part of me felt that was a conscious decision. I’m also a fan, in particular, of Kimmel’s use of insert shots to show parts of the environment. Small things like pictures on a mantle, the post of a bed, or a door frame with pen marks showing the height of children added that extra bit of eye candy. That all said, however, there’s an often strange and inconsistent use of hand-held camera work that’s jarring and doesn’t serve any purpose than to shake up an otherwise static scene I suppose, but that’s just nit picking. One last interesting detail was that, with the exception of Smith’s execution, there is no musical score for the film that isn’t diegetic. The film is unusually quiet which was strange given the amount of dead air in the slow paced scenes. I didn’t mind this silence but I could imagine for most viewers it would be difficult to keep your attention on the scene and not taking a chance to check your phone.

So in conclusion I felt Capote was an excellent film. It may not be in my Top 10 but I certainly admire a lot of aspects of it. I enjoyed the true life tale, Hoffman and Collin’s performances, and the careful attention to detail in creating a believable period piece. Now would I recommend it to other people? Well if you p
refer at least one explosion, sex scene, or car chase in your movies I’d say pass. Even those who have the patience to watch long and dragged out films (looking at you, Bergman) might find it difficult to get through the whole film. But if you appreciate the artform itself I think you’ll find a lot to like about this piece. Hell if you like Mad Men at all this might be right up your alley due to the elaborate talent that went behind the look of the film, but again no sex scenes as it’s a different kind of drama.

Or go read In Cold Blood, whatever.

Shouting Fire in a Theater – Gangster Squad

A hail of automatic fire rips into a theater audience in Gangster Squad, eerily predicting the events in Aurora, Colorado.

I originally wrote this just as the tragedy in Aurora was first breaking out, but like many others I chose to delay publishing it out of respect for those effected. I felt it was important for the initial wave of emotion to wash over the nation before working against the tide. While my sympathy for the families involved will always be, now that we’ve had some time to reflect on the event we can begin a discussion on the various implications this tragedy will leave in its wake. I will be discussing one example.

What happened in Aurora was, by no use of hyperbole, horrific. As many have said before me, these were people who were taking part in a great American past time enjoying the company of their friends, families, and even strangers in a collective appreciation of both Nolan’s Batman series and film itself. It will sadly go down in history as one of those events that brings us to a halt. Now, in the aftershock of the event, Warner Bros. has found themselves in an incredibly uncomfortable position. Just before the premiere of the anticipated The Dark Knight Rises they ran a trailer for their upcoming star-studded period piece Gangster Squad, playing in theaters all across the nation, including Aurora.  The timing seemed perfect, what better movie to showcase your trailer? The timing, however, could not have been more wrong. The crux of the issue is that this true-life story features a climactic scene in which men fire Thompson submachine guns through a movie screen into a crowd of panicked movie-goers.  Immediately following the news of the tragedy WB pulled the trailer from all theaters and even across online sites such as Youtube. As of this posting the below listing was still live, if it remains so you can watch the offending scene at the 2:00 mark.

I fully understand WB’s position in pulling the trailer. It makes absolute perfect sense out of respect and also fear of negative backlash. Despite their best efforts to remove the trailer, however, it has become a roaring debate that has the studio contemplating not only removing the scene from future trailers but removing or at least minimizing the scene from the film itself. Again, I completely understand the reasons why they would consider this. They might appear heartless, disrespectful, perhaps even mocking despite it not being their original intent. My personal belief, however, is that the scene should be left untouched.

The simple fact is that this story was never written nor produced to make commentary on the shooting in Colorado. There was no way the filmmakers would know. All they wanted to accomplish was to tell a true story in an entertaining fashion. The scene, regardless of what has happened, is a powerful moment on its own even in the trailer. A lot of care has gone into creating the look and feel of that moment which is also critical to the story itself. To remove it or even reduce it would rob the scene of its emotional power. Some argue passionately that the scene is too offensive, that it brings up too many emotions of a wound that’s barely days old, but isn’t the whole point of the artform to elicit emotions from the viewer? If anything the scene has gained incredible weight that it might not have otherwise. We, the audience, tend to live in a very sheltered environment in which this kind of violence is foreign to the point of novelty. When we watch a film like Saving Private Ryan we can’t really sympathize with the action on the screen unless we have either been to war or been close to someone who had. While we can enjoy the rush of action it’s all done vicariously through the lens of the camera, we don’t feel the real terror of being in a gunfight. This is why some scenes of romance really warm our hearts and other scenes of sorrow make us cry, because you’re able to relate to these moments and form a stronger attachment. By simple logic, most of us were not in that theater nor in Aurora, Colorado, we can only imagine the terror that those unfortunate people went through. Despite not being there, however, the event still has affected us even if in just a small way. This is something that happened in our time, and has opened our eyes that maybe it could happen again in the same venue. That’s what makes this scene hit harder now, and I think that by diluting that fear that it’ll cause it will actually show disrespect for those no longer with us. While WB’s intentions are good, it would be sheltering us from pain, and downplaying the events that happened. This doesn’t even touch the amount of hard work that has gone into the film that will be for nothing.

Leaving this scene in a film does not mean that the filmmakers are bad people. They are simply telling a story, and sometimes those stories hit closer to home than we would like them to, but we accept that we will censor something just because it makes the audience uncomfortable then what is the point of this artform? We should embrace all emotions that film gives us, be it good or horrific.