The Disaster Artist


The Franco brothers – together again at last!

(2017) Biography (A24) Dave Franco, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Paul Scheer, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, June Diane Raphael, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas, Andrew Santino, Nathan Fielder, Joe Mande, Sharon Stone, John Early, Melanie Griffith, Hannibal Buress, Judd Apatow, Bryan Cranston, Charlene Yi, Jessie Hannah Eris, Peter Gilroy, Lauren Ash. Directed by James Franco

 

There are three kinds of bad movies. There are the ones that are just bad, the ones you walk out of in the theater or more usually switch off from your television. There are the ones that are guilty pleasures – movies you know aren’t very good but you still like them anyway because they either speak to you in some way, there’s an actor in it you really like or you simply liked the vibe. Finally there are the “so bad they’re good” classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Terror in Tiny Town. One of the most recent examples of this is The Room.

It was made by writer, director and star Tommy Wiseau (J. Franco) who has a decidedly bizarre Eastern European-like accent but claims he’s from New Orleans. With long rock star hair matching his leather rock star pants, he has a look all his own, a kind of heavy metal marching band pirate.

In 1998 he met Greg Sestero (D. Franco) in an acting class in San Francisco. Greg wasn’t very good, unable to commit to his role. Tommy walked in and did maybe the most ham-fisted version of Stanley Kowalski screaming “STELLLLLLLLAAAAAAAH” in history. The two, both of whom have aspirations of making it in the business, become fast friends.

They end up moving to L.A. together and sharing an apartment Tommy has there. Tommy, who apparently has an unending source of money, is rejected by mega-producer Judd Apatow one night – well, he did interrupt his dinner – and decides that rather than waiting for a producer to see the clear star quality he knows he has that he needs to show it by making his own movie.

The thing is, Tommy knows absolutamente nada about making movies and while he hires a professional crew, he chooses to refuse their helpful advice and go resolutely down his own road. From time to time he turns into an actual dictator on the set, bullying actors and technicians alike and firing them from time to time without cause. Nevertheless, somehow the movie gets made and only Tommy seems to know that the movie is completely horrible and yet it will go on to become one of the first cult movies of the millennium.

Both of the Franco brothers are terrific in their performances but particularly James who not only nails Tommy’s bizarre accent and mannerisms but seems to inhabit his head too. Tommy as is pointed out in the movie and by reviewers lives on his own planet and everyone else is just visiting. James has gotten most of the acclaim (and the Golden Globe although surprisingly no Oscar nominations) but Dave deserves a little love too in a much less flamboyant role.

As a matter of fact, the cast is strong throughout as Franco likely cashed in a whole lot of markers to get lots of celebrity cameos – often as themselves – that help make the movie fun in spot-the-celebrity drinking game; you know the one, where you take a shot every time you see a celebrity other than the main roles. I guarantee you’ll be passed out drunk before the film is halfway over. Even given that you may well get a kick out of seeing some familiar stars from the recent past such as Melanie Griffith as a harried drama teacher or Sharon Stone as a harried agent. You’ll also see Seth Rogen at his non-stoner best and Alison Brie (Dave Franco’s real life wife) as Greg’s sweet girlfriend.

Although it shares a certain amount of DNA with Ed Wood, a similarly-themed film that critics seem hell-bent on comparing this to, they are completely different outlooks. Wood is a movie about mediocrity; this is a movie about perseverance. Tommy isn’t a particularly gifted or visionary individual and yeah if he wasn’t wealthy who knows if he gets to make a movie like this but one has to admire his tenacity, even if he occasionally turns into a dick in the process.

There is a question every critic needs to answer when reviewing a film like this – no, you don’t need to see The Room before seeing this and it really doesn’t matter which you see first. I would lean slightly towards seeing this first because you’ll appreciate the Wiseau original much more if you do.

This isn’t one of the best movies of the year but it is a very good movie that I can easily recommend to anyone. Sure it’s a little bit out there – maybe because it gets into the orbit of planet Tommy a little too closely – and some might think it a paean to bad movies – it’s not. Still, those who have ever loved a movie for no reason other than because it was nutty enough to appeal to them will find themselves finding common ground with this film.

REASONS TO GO: Both of the Franco brothers deliver the goods. In fact, the cast is really strong from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too off-kilter for some and some may think it celebrates bad movies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some sexuality and more of James Franco’s butt crack than you may ever wish to see again.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from A24 to be screened in the IMAX format.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ed Wood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Greatest Showman

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Gold (2016)


They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

(2016) Adventure (Dimension) Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Bill Camp, Joshua Harto, Timothy Simons, Craig T. Nelson, Stacy Keach, Macon Blair, Adam LaFevre, Bruce Greenwood, Rachael Taylor, Frank Wood, Michael Landes, Bhavesh Patel, Vic Browder, Dylan Kenin, Stafford Douglas, Kristen Rakes. Directed by Stephen Gaghan

 

A wise man once wrote that “all that glitters is not gold” but gold does glitter and its pull on some men is irresistible. It is the lure of riches and fame but also of conquering the odds. Not many who go looking for gold actually find it.
Kenny Wells (McConaughey) is once such. His company – the Washoe Mining Company that he inherited from his respected and revered dad (Nelson) and which had been founded nearly 80 years earlier by his granddad – is foundering, a once-thriving organization doing business out of a bar and down to a few loyal employees who hadn’t been paid in months. The economic downturn of the 80s has hit Washoe and Kenny hard. As it turns out, Kenny is a bit of a carnival barker, trying to get funds from disinterested local bankers to take one last stab at the dream. While his girlfriend Kay (Howard) remains loyal and believes in him, things look pretty bleak for Kenny Wells.

Then he discovers the largely discredited theories of Michael Acosta (Ramirez) who had discovered a sizable copper deposit years earlier. A rock star among geologists at one time, Acosta is also on a downward spiral. However, Acosta believes there is a major gold deposit in one of the most remote areas of Indonesia.

At first, things go badly. Kenny has sunk every last dime he has and what little he is able to borrow into the venture. To make matters worse, he’s contracted malaria and nearly dies. Acosta nurses him back to health and even as the miners (who also haven’t been paid) have left in droves, the patience pays off as gold is discovered and not just a little bit – billions of dollars worth. Kenny and Michael have just hit the big time and for Kay, her ship has just come in.

Immediately as word spreads of the small company’s find spreads, Wall Street sharks begin to circle in particular in the form of Brian Woolf (Stoll) who is all smiles and white teeth but means to wring every penny out of Washoe that he can. It looks like easy pickings, too – Kenny’s drinking, always a problem for him, has reached massive proportions. He also smokes like a fiend and is paunchy and sometimes he’s not all together mentally speaking, or at least so it appears.

But Kenny proves to be cannier than people give him credit for. The small time operator has a few tricks up his sleeve as he fights to protect what he worked so hard to obtain. And for awhile, it looks like he might succeed until a bombshell drops that threatens all he has earned – and then some.

This is loosely based – VERY loosely – on the Bre-X mining scandal of the 1990s. For one thing, that took place in Canada rather than in Nevada and led to some major reforms on the Canadian stock exchange as well as in mining practices. The investigation also overwhelmed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who simply didn’t have the resources to investigate the scale of corruption that took place so there were never any charges filed.

Otherwise most of the salient facts that are shown here jive with what happened in Canada back in the 1990s. Some of the characters here were based on people who were involved in the real case (primarily Wells and Acosta). Otherwise, this is mainly a yarn about greed and dreams.

McConaughey went the “de-glamorize” route, wearing a set of crooked false teeth, gaining 45 pounds on a cheeseburger diet to get quite a bit of a paunch and wearing a hair piece with a bald spot and thinning locks. McConaughey, who is a very handsome man, doesn’t look that way here. In the past, I’ve praised Hollywood actors for going this route for the sake of their art but it’s becoming a much more prevalent event these days so I’ll refrain from a whole lot of compliments; let’s just say that the acting performance that McConaughey delivers is as good as anything he’s done regardless of the sideshow about how he looks here. He’s come a long way since the laidback Texas surfer dude he seemed to always be playing.

The movie runs two full hours and to be honest I’m not sure it needed to. Once the gold is discovered it begins to drag a little bit as the corporate setup takes most of the focus and that portion of the film isn’t nearly as interesting. The ending is definitely Hollywood too – I would have liked it to have been less heart-warming, particularly after everything the principles did to each other. It doesn’t seem terribly realistic to me.

Like many other films that Weinstein distributes, this bounced around the release schedule for a time before settling on a Christmas release in New York and Los Angeles and expanding nationwide in January. I’m frankly mystified that they’d open this up in the holiday season at all; there was never any real chance of Oscar attention here and to be honest this feels a little bit more suited to the less competitive January release schedule. Still, it is competently done and reasonably entertaining which given what dogs we usually get in January is saying something.

REASONS TO GO: McConaughey does a stellar job here despite all the make-up and hair tomfoolery..
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film feels long and seems to lose steam in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality, some nudity and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fool’s Gold
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Live By Night

Twisted Justice (Nihon de ichiban warui yatsura)


Cops and guns.

Cops and guns.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Toei) Gȏ Ayano, Shidȏ Nakamura, Pierre Taki, Munetaka Aoki, Haruna Yabuki, Young Dais, Kumi Takiuchi, Katsuya, Takayuki Kinoshita, Tomoya Nakamura, Ryȗzȏ Tanaka, Ayumu Saitȏ, Takuma Otoo, Yukio Ueno, Minosuke, Ito Shiraishi. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

NYAFF

Certain things translate across cultural lines; that innocence can tarnished until it has rusted away solid and that power corrupts even the purest of souls. A fall from grace is a tragedy in any language.

Moroboshi (Ayano) is a jujitsu wrestler and a pretty good one and has the cauliflower ear to prove it. So good, in fact, that the Hokkaido prefecture police give him a job not because of his criminologist skills but because they hope that he will lead their jujitsu team to respectability, which he does. However, the police detectives in the precinct in the capitol of Sapporo are less enthused about his presence. He is used primarily as a gopher and a clerk.

But veteran detective Murai (Taki) sees something in the young man and takes him under his wing. Murai is at this time a fine police officer and one of the most respected in the department, but the department has this odd points system, in which certain types of busts were worth points while others were worth more points – and others less.

From Murai he learns to play the game of informants – called “Spies,” or just “S” in Japan. Moroboshi uses them to find out information that gets some of the feared Yakuza busted, which pushes up Moroboshi up the ladder at work. As the 70s wear on, Murai commits a cardinal sin and is forced to leave in disgrace, leaving Murai to pick up his informants and his status. Soon, as Japan enters a phase in which the police have become obsessed with taking illegal guns off the street, he has begun using his own Yakuza connections to import guns, then turn them in for financial gain (cops are being paid cash bonuses for each gun they turn in) as well as departmental glory.

But as Moroboshi uses his friends and mistresses, he begins to lose control of his little empire. Fueled on cocaine and high on sex, Moroboshi goes from the young and naïve wrestler and rookie patrol officer to a bitter and jaded veteran cop who sees the abyss rushing towards him. Can he avoid his fate?

The film is based on actual events that made up the biggest police scandal in Japan’s history to date. There is a Scorsese-esque feel here, especially in terms of The Departed, itself based on an Asian film. There are also elements of the Japanese yakuza film, such as the work of the great Kinji Fukasaku, very apparent here. Fans of the crime genre worldwide should sit up and take notice of this film. American audiences might also see the crime dramas of John Woo in between the frames here.

A bravura performance by Ayano has already gotten him notice as a rising star in Japan; he does some unforgettable work as both the young and puppy-like Moroboshi until he becomes the lethal and amoral cop that he eventually becomes. We watch Moroboshi slowly lose the endearing qualities that made him delightful at the beginning but by the movie’s end, the character is utterly corrupt and beyond redemption.

Shiraishi initially sets the movie in the ’70s (it covers a time span of more than three decades) and in each era that the movie checks in with Moroboshi, the film really looks like a movie from that era. For example, the 70s portion looks a lot like an American TV cop show – with boobs. And yes, there are plenty of those; prostitutes play a vital role in the movie.

There are moments of what I suppose are comedy relief that are almost surreal and absurd, but they are rather jarring next to the grim tone of the rest of the film. I think it’s more of a cultural thing that I don’t appreciate them as much; I’ve noticed that Japanese yakuza films often have those moments that are almost bizarre so I suppose that is something that Japanese audiences understand more than I do.

This has yet to acquire U.S. distribution as of this writing and quite frankly is more likely to hit the festival circuit first although someone like Magnet or Well Go USA might take a long look at this and send it out into the American market one of these days. If you see it playing anywhere near you if that occurs, don’t hesitate to go check it out – this is one of the good ones.

REASONS TO GO: The look of the film fits nicely the period it is set in. A cross between Scorsese and Woo on a budget.
REASONS TO STAY: There are moments of surreal absurdity that jar with the overall gritty tone.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and profanity, along with a surfeit of smoking and some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Will make its American debut as the opening night film at the New York Asian Film Festival on June 22, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Departed
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Apocalypse Child

Paper Towns


Cara Delevingne wait to see if the coast is clear.

Cara Delevingne wait to see if the coast is clear.

(2015) Drama (20th Century Fox) Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Buono, Josiah Cerio, Hannah Allgood, Meg Crosbie, Griffin Freeman, Caitlin Carver, RJ Shearer, Susan Macke Miller, Tom Hillmann, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Jay Duplass, Kendall McIntyre, Emma O’Laughlin, Yossie Mulyadi. Directed by Jake Schreier

Figuring out who we are is a lifelong pursuit. Some of us learn early on and either go through a life of self-hatred or one of self-satisfaction, or at least self-acceptance. For others, we search and search, grabbing at maddening clues that seem to lead us somewhere but ultimately lead us back to ourselves. For some of us, the search is what makes us who we are.

Quentin (Wolff) is a senior in high school. He is one of those guys who everyone knows but nobody particularly cares one way or the other about him other than his two best friends, Radar (Smith) and Ben (Abrams). Quentin has his whole life planned out; he’s been accepted at Duke, intends to go to their prestigious medical school, become a doctor of oncology and meet someone special and have lots of babies and have a great life. The end.

Except he’s already met someone special, as far as he’s concerned. Her name is Margo Roth-Spiegelman (Delevingne) and she lives right across the street. She’s lived there ever since they were children and Quentin has had a crush on her from the first day he saw her. They couldn’t be more opposites; Quentin has a plan, tends to play things safe and wants his life on the straight and narrow. She, on the other hand, is adventurous, loves a good mystery and isn’t afraid to live her life outside the box.

That’s why they inevitably drift apart during high school. Oddly, she becomes part of the in crowd, the girlfriend of Jase (Freeman), a jock who has been cheating on her with her best friend Becca (Carver). Disillusioned, she shows up at Quentin’s window one night, needing a getaway driver. That’s because she wants to get revenge on those who betrayed her as well as those who knew about the betrayal and didn’t tell her, which would include her other best friend Lacey (Sage) and Lacey’s boyfriend (and Jase’s best friend) Chuck (Shearer).

The vengeance is complicated and bittersweet. Quentin is at first a reluctant participant, not wanting to get caught and have his carefully laid plans ruined, but as the night goes on he finds himself feeling alive like he never has before. He feels that old connection with Margo and it seems as if that feeling is reciprocated as she wonders in a sort of melancholy way how things might have turned out if she hadn’t abandoned him for the in crowd and stayed with him.

The next day, Margo doesn’t show up for school. Nor the next and the next. The police become involved but Margo’s mom (Miller) throws up her hands in disgust. This isn’t the first time Margo has run away from home and she’ll come back when she gets bored or runs out of money. She declines to file a missing persons report, earning her a parent of the year award from an incredulous Quentin.

He resolves to find her himself and of course his trusted friends are all in. Ben, in particular wants the opportunity to hang out with Lacey, who it turns out didn’t know what Jase was up to and is as concerned as to her whereabouts as Quentin is.

Margo has always been wont to leaving clues and this is no exception. Bribing her little sister Ruthie (Crosbie) to let her examine Margo’s room, Quentin discovers a volume of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which seems to indicate her state of mine. He also finds a scrap of paper with an address of what turns out to be an abandoned tourist memorabilia shop in a dicey part of town, which will lead him and his friends on the adventure of a lifetime.

This is based on the young adult book of the same name by John Green (who also wrote The Fault in Our Stars) which should have given it a built-in audience but the early box office returns have been less spectacular than the other film. Not bad, but not spectacular. The movie will make a tidy profit, but not nine figures like the first film did.

Part of the issue with the movie is that the leads are really not easy. Quentin is as white bread as they come, a little bit boring even. His obsession with Margo flies in the face of his carefully prepared life, and of logic – admittedly however teen hormones trump logic every time. Margo on the other hand is as self-centered a lead as you’ll see in the movies. Everything she does is about her and about her needs, and as it turns out, nobody really notices except for the astute Ben who tells Lacey “She doesn’t deserve a friend like you” and he’s right. She’s the sort that an adult can see right through, from the pretentious use of capital letters and her aphorisms which sound a lot wiser than they are. If Quentin is the average high school student, Margo is the high school student that doesn’t exist except in the mind of John Green. Which of course means she probably does.

The writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have an ear for dialogue, even more so than Diablo Cody and Kevin Smith who both write excellent dialogue but in a more clever vein. These kids talk the way kids really speak and that genuineness is part of the movie’s highlights. For me – and I admit this is strictly my own viewpoint – I found it refreshing that this movie, set in my home town of Orlando, portrays Orlando as a city where people actually live, even though Margo despises it so. She probably never hung out at the Enzian Theater. She’d have had a different opinion.

I would go so far as to say that this captures the bittersweet elements of one’s senior year in high school. It is a time of transition without those who are living it knowing it. Only towards the last weeks we realize that we are hanging out at the burger place for the last time, eating pancakes at our best friend’s house for the last time, going to science lab for the last time. Suddenly we realize we are being pushed out into adulthood and as eager as we are to grow up, a part of us is kicking and screaming.

The best part of the movie is the relationship between Quentin, Radar and Ben which is surprising since the movie is ostensibly about Quentin and Margo, but the bonds between the three boys becoming men are so genuine and so real; to their credit, the filmmakers realize that (and I think Green probably does as well) and at the end of the day, when Quentin is given a choice, he chooses to return home to his friends, even though after the summer they’ll all go their separate ways. It is a bittersweet ending, but the right one.

I have always thought that people latch onto a movie because they see a little bit of themselves in the characters, but I no longer believe that is true. I think we latch onto a movie because we see ourselves the way we want to be in the characters, and surprisingly, the character I saw myself wanting to be the most was Radar, whose loyalty to his girlfriend Angela (Sinclair) is sweet and admirable in many ways; I wish I had that kind of commitment when I was his age. I like to think I would have. In any case, while this movie isn’t going to set teen hearts aflutter, it might appeal to jaded adults like myself more than you might expect. Who would have thought that.

REASONS TO GO: Gets the bittersweet senior year nicely. The bonds between the guys are genuine.
REASONS TO STAY: A mite too pretentious for its own good. Margo is a little too self-centered to identify with.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language, teen drinking and partying, partial nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ansel Elgort makes a cameo as a gas station convenience store clerk.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Crude

The Killer (1989) (Dip huet seung hung)


A Hong Kong standoff.

A Hong Kong standoff.

(1989) Crime Drama (Circle) Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Kong Chu, Kenneth Tsang, Fui-On Shing, Wing-Cho Yip, Fan Wei Yee, Barry Wong, Parkman Wong, Siu-Hung Ng, Yamson Domingo, Siu Hung Ngan, Kwong Leung Wong, Simon Broad (voice), Dion Lam, Chung Lin, Hung Lu, Pierre Tremblay (voice), Hsiang Lin Yin  Directed by John Woo

There are those who are big fans of Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s who will tell you that maybe the seminal film of that era and that place is John Woo’s The Killer. At the time it was hailed by the Western press as a masterpiece even though it surprisingly didn’t do well at the box office at the time as it was released shortly after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Since then it has taken its rightful place as one of the finest films ever to be produced in Hong Kong.

Ah Jong (Fat) is a hitman for the Hong Kong triads. However, he is getting out of the business, having lost the taste for it and plans to retire after one last job. It goes off pretty well but during the fracas, a pretty nightclub singer named Jenny (Yeh) is injured by the muzzle flash from Ah Jong’s gun when his gun goes off next to her eyes. She will need an expensive corneal transplant or will eventually lose her sight completely.

Ah Jong feels a certain amount of guilt over the incident and begins hanging out at the nightclub to hear the singer, whose sight has become so poor that she doesn’t recognize him. He witnesses an attempted mugging on the singer and drives off the bandits. Afterwards, he escorts her home and eventually the two begin to fall in love. Ah Jong resolves to get her the transplant to save her sight and in order to do so, he contacts his Triad handler Fung Sei (Kong Chu) to set up one last hit, the proceeds for which should be more than enough to pay for Jenny’s operation.

At the Hong Kong dragon boat celebration he assassinates an industrialist. However, he is observed by maverick Hong Kong police detective Li Ying (Lee), who along with his partner Tsang Yeh (Tsang) begin closing in on the assassin. The Triad boss, the ruthless Hay Wong Hoi (Shing) refuses to pay Ah Jong what he owes him and puts out a hit on his former employee. Not a smart idea. Ah Jong isn’t about to go down quietly and together with Fung Sei determine to take what is his. Li becomes intrigued with the assassin when he rushed a child, hit by incidental gunfire during the shootout, to a hospital but by doing so gets caught in the middle of the war between Ah Jong and the Triad. One thing is certain; bullets are going to fly.

The violence here is stylish, influenced by such American auteurs as Scorsese and Peckinpah. The final shootout takes place in a church that is in the process of being renovated; noted cinematographer Peter Pau and his co-cinematographer Wing-Hang Wong use doves, a Woo trademark (although this was the first film he would use them in) with a gauzy focus to make the setting somewhat ethereal; a purgatory in which the protagonists will go either to heaven or to hell.

Chow Yun Fat is one of the most charismatic and able actors to ever come out of Asia. although as of late he hasn’t appeared in many films that have made it to the States he has continued to be one of the most in-demand actors in the East. He demonstrates his screen presence here, using his athleticism to good advantage particularly in the gun battles.

The relationship between Ah Jong and Detective Li is crucial to the film’s success and the relationship goes from antagonists to grudging respect to close friends in a short time. That might seem laughable to Western audiences but it feels organic. I will admit that seeing the film a second time 25 years after originally seeing it during its first American theatrical run that the film doesn’t hold up as well as I thought it might; some of the dialogue comes off as clunky and there is a cheesy factor that I don’t remember from my first viewing, when I was extremely impressed and became a lifelong devotee to Hong Kong-produced films ever since. Woo himself had to make some compromises due to run-ins with his producer, the legendary Tsui Hark. Like Woo, Hark is a man of strong opinions and the two butted heads over things like the soundtrack. Woo wanted Jenny to be a singer of sultry jazz songs but Hark didn’t think Asian audiences would like that and insisted that she sing Chinese pop songs. For the record, Woo was right.

The Killer has been a tremendous influence on action films in general; echoes of various scenes can be seen in just about every action film made since, influencing directors like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, the Wachowski’s, Luc Besson and Antoine Fuqua. Sure, there are some cultural aspects that may seem foreign to American audiences but the action sequences by themselves are worthy of study, particularly for the serious aficionado of action movies. While I left my more recent viewing less impressed than I had been after my first, I had to remind myself that many of the sequences have been so imitated that they seem less incredible now than when I first saw it, when I have to say without reservation that I hadn’t seen anything like this before. In many ways, it still can be said about this movie – it is an amazing piece of filmmaking and anyone who seriously loves movies should make the effort to see this film at some point; it is required viewing for any understanding of action movies and non-American cinema.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully choreographed action. Fine performance by Chow Yun Fat. Beautiful cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated. Some of the dialogue is a bit bombastic.
FAMILY VALUES: An incredible amount of violence, mostly bloodless although there are a couple of disturbing images. There’s also a little bit of foul language and a whole lot of smoking going on.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The subtitles were so badly translated during the first American theatrical run that the film was mistakenly promoted as a comedy..
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Dragon Dynasty DVD/Blu-Ray version includes a location guide. Surprisingly, the now out-of-print Criterion Collection edition contained no notable extras.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.4M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental and streaming)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Departed
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Leatherheads

It Follows


Post-coital bliss.

Post-coital bliss.

(2015) Horror (Radius) Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Bailey Spry, Carolette Phillips, Loren Bass, Charles Gertner, Debbie Williams, Ruby Harris, Linda Boston, Leisa Pulido, D.J. Oliver, Ingrid Mortimer, Kourtney Bell, Alexyss Spradlin, Mike Lanier, Scott Norman, Claire Sloma. Directed by David Robert Mitchell

Horror films are kind of the bastard stepchildren of cinema. Disrespected critically, nonetheless horror films have a rabid following that have kept it the most profitable genre in movies as they tend to cost very little to make but when they connect with audiences, they can bring in hundreds of millions in revenue.

However, horror movies tend to attract a lot of hack filmmakers who assume that they can just recycle a tired concept, throw some fake blood at the camera and that millions of teenagers will automatically love them. It doesn’t work that way. Truly innovative horror movies are a sad rarity these days and ones that are skillfully made even less so. We’ve been in a drought over the past six or seven years in terms of really good horror movies, but there are indications that not only is that drought over but we may be entering a new golden age of really good horror movies much as we did back in the late ’70s.

This movie is giving me reason for that kind of hope. The premise is terrifyingly simple; Jay (Monroe), a beautiful blonde teen girl living in the suburbs of Detroit, has been dating a sweet young man named Hugh (Weary). As teenagers will do, they have sex together in a parked car. Then the wheels fall off.

It turns out that Hugh – which isn’t his real name – has a curse. Not a sexually transmitted disease, although it is sexually transmitted, and he has passed it on to Jay. She is now being stalked by a demonic presence that approaches at a slow walking pace. If it touches her, she’ll die. The only way to stop the curse is to pass it on to someone else – by having sex with them, and then telling them the rules. If the demon kills one of the cursed, it then goes after the person who gave the curse back to them and then down the line, presumably to the person who started it all. Oh, and the person infected is the only person who can see the demon, who takes human form, often of people that the victim knows.

Of course, Jay’s circle of friends – her sister Kelly (Sepe), their bookish friend Yara (Luccardi) and their quiet friend Paul (Gilchrist) who has a huge crush on Jay which he’s had since grade school, as well as neighborly stud Greg (Zovatto) – are skeptical at first. Then, they experience the demon themselves, which has a physical presence, they just can’t see it so it manifests itself by moving objects or throwing them about like rag dolls. Since they don’t have the curse, its touch isn’t deadly to them. See how that works?

Mitchell, whose previous film was the gentle comedy The Myth of the American Sleepover shows that he has the proper chops for a horror master. Few movies have ever pulled off the kind of tension that Mitchell has. Basically from the first ten minutes on most audience members will be on the edge of their seat. Think about it; any person at any time that is walking towards the main character can be the demon. It can make for some harrowing viewing.

Mitchell doesn’t give a lot of information about the rules beyond what I’ve already explained; this is a good and a bad thing. Good in that it doesn’t overburden the movie with exposition, bad in that at some points the movie could have used some.

The teen characters here act a lot like teens; they don’t always make smart decisions and they tend to operate more on hormones and emotions rather than good sense. They aren’t bad kids, mind you – they’re more like normal kids who are capable of being both real sweet and real assholes. Like I said, just like normal teens. The acting is solid though not spectacular and all of the kids here are more or less attractive.

One of the ongoing bits of business in the movie is that Yara, the bookish friend, is constantly reading from a Kindle-like device that’s shaped like a clam shell for no discernible reason although for the sake of transparency I did hear one teen in the audience at my screening exclaim “I want one” so maybe there was a reason. This leads to the point that the time period that the movie is set in is kind of indeterminate; the cars and houses look like they came from the early ’80s, the clam shell device from a few years from now and the movies the kids watch are all at least 50 years old. That makes It Follows kind of timeless.

There are a few nitpicks. The book Yara is reading is by Dostoyevsky which isn’t what I would call normal teen reading; it would have been more believable to have her reading one of the Twilight books although I would imagine getting the rights to use the name of that series might have been too dear for a micro-budgeted indie horror film like this.

The main problem is the climax, set in a gorgeous public swimming pool in Detroit which provides a spooky enough setting without adding a CGI thunderstorm (which they add anyway). The idea of lining the edges of the pool with electrical devices plugged into wall sockets with the idea of kicking them all in simultaneously once the demon gets into the water without knowing whether or not the thing is immune to electrical shock seems a bit dumb; clearly the electrical devices don’t work on Jay because the creature tosses them in the pool while she’s in it to no discernible effect. The last image in the movie is rather ambiguous but I kind of liked that; I respect any filmmaker who lets audiences draw their own conclusions.

I was strongly reminded of the feeling I got seeing the John Carpenter Halloween in theaters back in ’78. It Follows has the same Midwestern suburban vibe but as a modern twist it adds the crumbling structure of Detroit itself with ruined and abandoned buildings providing an eerie backdrop, like pretending to be normal as the world is ending. I suspect that this will be considered a horror classic the same way Halloween was and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were plenty of imitators that come out after this, but hopefully that will also spur a lot of really good directors and writers to try their hands at making a horror movie that’s smart, scary and innovative. The fact that the response at the box office was so strong that Radius was prompted to change their distribution plans from a slight release in a few select theaters with a simultaneous VOD release to a wide release while postponing the VOD release. Horror fans should make a point of seeing this as should fans of good movies. Definitely one of the year’s best thus far.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most tense horror films of the past 20 years. Imaginative concept. Propulsive score.
REASONS TO STAY: The climax is a bit of a stretch.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexuality with graphic nudity, terrifying images, and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Redford Theater depicted in the film really exists in Detroit. It has a Wurlitzer Organ and is one of the finest revival houses in the Midwest.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween (1978)
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Higher Ground

My Afternoons with Margueritte (La tête en friche)


A sunny afternoon in a park in a small French village is c'est magnifique!

A sunny afternoon in a park in a small French village is c’est magnifique!

(2010) Dramedy (Cohen Media Group) Gerard Depardieu, Gisele Casadesus, Maurane, Patrick Bouchitey, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Francois-Xavier Demaison, Claire Maurier, Sophie Guillermin, Melanie Bernier, Matthieu Dahan, Jerome Deschamps, Gilles Detroit, Regis Laspales, Anne Le Guernec, Jean-Luc Porraz, Bruno Ricci, Lyes Salem, Sylvia Allegre. Directed by Jean Becker

Offshoring

You can never tell who will come into your life and change it forever. Sometimes it’s someone you’d expect – a teacher, a preacher, a parent, a lover – but sometimes it is quite someone else entirely.

Germain (Depardieu) is a middle-aged mostly illiterate handyman living in a small, bucolic French village. He lives in a trailer next to his mother (Maurier) who is showing signs of Alzheimer’s and isn’t well. When she was a young woman (Le Guernec) she was an absolute terror. Germain had been the result of an accidental pregnancy and Mommy dearest made sure that Germain knew at every possible turn that she never wanted him. In fact, she never refers to Germain by name or even as a he – to his mom, Germain is an “it.”

You would think that would make Germain a bitter, mean man but he has proven to be stronger. His is a gentle soul, and most people like him personally – although plenty make fun of him behind his back. He has a beautiful young girlfriend, Annette (Guillermin) who drives the local bus and he sells vegetables from his garden. Between that and his handyman work he squeaks by but in a village like this, life – even just squeaking by – is good.

One afternoon as he sits on a park bench to eat his lunch, he meets by chance Margueritte (Casadesus). She is everything he is not; worldly, well-read, intelligent and tiny. At 95 years old, she is still full of life and joy. They pass a pleasant conversation and Margueritte begins reading The Plague by the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. Germain finds himself falling for the power of the words and Margueritte lends him a dictionary to help him learn to read.

That goes very poorly as Germain quickly realizes that he is slogging through mud and feeling humiliated, gives up quickly. However, as it turns out, Margueritte has macular degeneration and won’t be able to read much longer. To be separated from books – now that is a living hell as far as Margueritte is concerned. Germain determines to finally learn how to read once and for all – not for himself but for his new friend.

Becker, a second-generation filmmaker, is extraordinary in his brevity. There are no wasted scenes, no unnecessary shots. Vis a vis the story, he simply gets on with it, displaying the salient points and when the story is over, so is the film. There are plenty of filmmakers who can learn from his technique including some who have won Oscars.

Much has been made of Depardieu’s weight in the movie and the “unlikelihood” of a beautiful young woman like Annette falling in love with him and maintaining a romantic and sexual relationship with him. Critics who have written such things need to be given a year off from their jobs so they can actually live in the real world – people fall for people regardless of how they look or weigh. It is only shallow people to whom looks are important and those are generally the people who complain they can’t find anyone to stick around.

This isn’t a movie that bowls you over. Rather, it is one you fall in love with slowly, gradually, until by the end credits you realize that you feel genuine affection for the film. Depardieu has a lot to do with that. One of the world’s best actors in his heyday and still as engaging as he ever was, he imbues the soul of Germain with a kind of sweetness so genuine it is hard not to like the oaf. His chemistry with Casadesus is also genuine which is a relief because the movie revolves around it; in fact, must have that chemistry in order to succeed. Not to worry; you don’t for a second doubt that they have become deep, close friends.

Some people may find the comedy too subtle and low-key and I can understand that. This is going to appeal more to people who have more of a European sensibility and perspective than American; you will either like this or not depending on your tolerance for subtlety. It may not be loud enough for you, but those who prefer movies that don’t have to shout will be drawn to this like moths to a warm, comforting flame.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Depardieu and Casadesus is delightful. Very charming and sweet.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Occasional foul language, a few sexual references and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although uncredited as such on the final print, Depardieu served as executive producer for the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.3M on an unreported production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Offshoring 2014 concludes!