Griff the Invisible


Even a superhero needs an occasional break.

Even a superhero needs an occasional break.

(2010) Comedy (Indomina) Ryan Kwanten, Maeve Darmody, Patrick Brammall, Toby Schmitz, Marshall Napier, Heather Mitchell, David Webb, Anthony Phelan, Kelly Paterniti, Kate Mulvany, Angela Bauer, Patricia Rogan, Leon Dobrinski, Joe June, Paul Mawhinney, Kyle Beattie, Ben Borgia, Luke Hobbins, May Lloyd, Ray Carter, Sarah Becker. Directed by Leon Ford

What is real and what is in our imagination is simply a matter of our own personal perceptions. For some of us, the line between the two is thinner than others; that fine line and the ability to recognize where it is can be the difference between genius and madness.

Griff (Kwanten) is a cubicle cowboy in Australia; a sad sack nobody who is constantly bullied by Tony (Schmitz). Griff longs to be a caped crusader, a crime fighting superhero who dispenses justice along with an occasional bon mot. His brother Tim (Brammall) is very worried about Griff who seems to be losing his grip on reality. Tim’s girlfriend Melody (Darmody) on the other hand thinks Griff is more than all right; in fact, she thinks she has the potential ability to walk through walls. When Tim receives a super suit in a mysterious package that allows him to turn invisible, the evildoers of Sydney need to be on their toes!

With a zealous policeman (Phelan) on his tail, Griff seems to be drifting further and further away from reality. He is caught on surveillance video sneaking around his office in his supposedly invisible super suit and as a result loses his job. This turns into a wake-up call for Griff who at last seems to be finally turning his back on his delusions and getting back in touch with reality, but this might cost him his relationship with Melody whom Griff has fallen in love with and whose affections are definitely returned. Is the new, more responsible Griff the same person she fell in love with? Or is that just an illusion as well?

There has been a rash of “ordinary superhero” movies perhaps inspired partially by the success of the Batman movies but certainly by such movies as Kick-Ass and Defendor as well. It examines our own needs to be important, respected and in control but also our fascination with superheroes and what they represent in our society.

Kwanten, best known for his work in the HBO hit series True Blood shows promise that he could go the next step into cinematic leading man territory. He is appealing in both his sad sack Griff persona as well as his heroic crime fighter role as well. With the success of DC and Marvel Comics, it stands to reason that more and newer superhero roles are coming down the pike and it wouldn’t surprise me if Kwanten doesn’t get at least considered for some of them.

His chemistry with Darmody is also strong. She’s less known here in the States having made more of an impression on Aussie TV roles but she definitely has some appeal and could very well one day get the kind of success as her fellow Aussies Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts currently enjoy.

The problem is that Griff and Melody are both a little bit too out to left field. I kind of get the director’s stance that when we lose our imagination we lose something of our soul, but the way that Griff and Melody both behave I can’t see them surviving in the real world without someone having them both committed to a care facility for their own protection. Certainly the actions they take in the movie put them both in mortal danger which of course works in the movies but I couldn’t help but wonder “Isn’t there someone keeping an eye on these two people?” You still end up liking them but you fear for not only their sanity but for their well-being as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming. Kwanten and Darmody are both appealing leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Griff and Melody are maybe too out there to be believable. Doesn’t hold up well with other movies with a similar theme.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and a little bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was inspired by writer/director Ford observing a small child playing while sitting in a cafe one day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a director’s video log in which first-time director Ford talks about some of the pitfalls of being a rookie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Change of Plans

Advertisements

True Legend (Su Qi-Er)


This armor is for the birds.

This armor is for the birds.

(2010) Martial Arts (Indomina) Vincent Zhao, Xun Zhou, Andy On, Guo Xiaodong, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine, Gordon Liu, Cung Le, Xiaogang Feng, Ka-Yen Leung, Jacky Heung, Ni Yan, Will Liu, Luxia Jiang, Ze Li, Hanwen Suen, Conan Stevens, Sylvester Terkay, Matt Weise, Dominique Vandenberg, Jon Heidenreich, He Hung. Directed by Yuen Woo Ping

Vengeance is one of the uglier sides of the human spirit. It warps the soul and is a kind of madness, an obsession that can turn a good man into something evil. Those who go through life seeking vengeance are likely to dig their own graves.

Su Can (Zhao) is a skilled general who rescues a prince (Heung) of the realm from a fortress full of enemies in a mountain stronghold. In return for his bravery, Su is offered the position of governor of Hubei province; however, Su doesn’t want it. Su is more interested in perfecting his own Wu Shu and retiring from the military life. He gives instead the position to his adopted brother Yuan Lie (On), who is jealous at having lived in Su Can’s shadow most of his life.

But not all of it  When Yuan was a little boy, Su Can’s father killed Yuan’s father who had been perfecting a particularly evil form of Wu Shu called the Five Venom Fists, afterwards adopting Yuan and his sister Ying (Zhou). Su had fallen in love with Ying and married her, further driving a wedge between the two men.

Five years pass and Yuan returns home, ostensibly to reconcile. However, that’s not going to happen – his heart has grown far too twisted and evil. He murders Su’s father in a particularly brutal fashion and maims Su. Only Ying’s pleas stop Yuan from killing her husband. Instead, Yuan throws Su into a raging river, poisoned and badly injured.

Ying escapes, diving into the river after her husband and rescuing him. She takes him to the lonely mountain cottage of Dr. Yu (Yeoh), a herbalist. Su’s injuries are crippling and only through rigorous training will he be able to use his arm again. At first, Su is more interested in drinking himself blind. Not only did Yuan murder his dad but he kidnapped his son Feng (Suen) as well and Su is in no shape to rescue his own flesh and blood.

However, the Wu Shu God (Chou) takes pity on Su and along with a wise old sage (Gordon Liu) instruct him in the art of Wu Shu. It isn’t until later that Ying realizes that Su is going mad – he is training with nobody. She realizes that Su may never be recovered enough to rescue her son so she decides to go do it herself and gets captured for her trouble.

Su knows that he has no choice; he will have to set aside his demons and save his family. The showdown will be epic but it won’t end quite the way anyone expects – leaving Su broken and fighting in an arena against foreign devils. Has he hit rock bottom? And what will he lose on the way there?

Ping is best known as the action choreographer for films like The Matrix and both Kill Bill movies. He’s also a director and has done over 20 movies on his own. As you might expect, he is an accomplished director of action sequences and has a fluid visual style that’s quite pleasing. However, he is less strong with story and character, letting them take a back seat to the sometimes breathtaking fights.

And they are breathtaking. The fight at the waterfall between the Iron Twins and Su is beautiful (it ought to be; it took 15 days to shoot) and intricate, one of the best martial arts sequences you’re ever likely to see. There are several others which are similarly spectacular. Sadly, when the action stops and the talking starts, the movie grinds to a screeching halt…or screeches to a grinding halt. Choose your mixed metaphor wisely.

Ping is best known for his wire work and he augments that with some CGI sequences involving weaponry and Wu Shu wizardry. Unfortunately, like many effects sequences in Chinese films these days, the work isn’t up to par with modern standards and for the most part look kind of weak and shoddy  While I realize that practical effects aren’t always…er, practical for certain sequences, if you must use CGI at the very least make sure it doesn’t make your film look worse.

Vincent Zhao wasn’t particularly well-known in China when this was filmed – he’d mostly done television and commercial work but he does a pretty credible job here and is at the center of most of the action. Yeoh is one of my favorite actresses worldwide; even though her role here is brief, she elevates every movie she participates in and this is no exception. I could watch her chatting on her cell phone for hours and never get bored.

In fact, having Yeoh as well as the legendary Gordon Liu and the late David Carradine in one of his final roles all together in the same movie is reason enough to rent this sucker, even though they don’t appear in the same scenes at one time. Reason enough for me to seek this one out…and it should be reason enough for you to as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific action sequences. Yeoh, Chou, Carradine and Gordon Liu in the same movie – awesome!

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No plot to speak of. CGI detracts from the quality of the film.

FAMILY VALUES: Martial arts violence as you’d expect, some of it brutal.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Ping’s first film as a director since 1996.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a music video here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unreported (the film made a negligible amount in the States although it’s Chinese box office is probably substantial) on a $20M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: War

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Local Legends

Holy Motors


Roses are red...and delicious!

Roses are red…and delicious!

(2012) Art House (Indomina) Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Geoffrey Carey, Elise Lhommeau, Jeanne Disson, Michel Piccoli,  Leos Carax, Nastya Golubeva Carax, Reda Oumouzoune, Zlata, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Elise Caron. Directed by Leos Carax

Making sense can be overrated. Our world is a series of contradictions made by hypocrites and swallowed whole by most of us who merely want to live our lives without too much interference. Sometimes it feels like an eccentric French movie that we’re all taking part in.

Leos Carax can feel your pain, ladies and gentlemen. He knows exactly how you feel. Fortunately, as a director of eccentric French movies, he can do something about it.

We meet Monsieur Oscar (Lavant) on a movie screen (don’t ignore the preamble in which a sleeping man finds himself hearing sounds of a harbor while planes land at the airport outside his window, then proceeds to use a key growing out of his finger to open a door which leads into a movie theater – that’s director Carax himself, setting you up for the rest of the film) in which he appears to be

Monsieur Oscar climbs into the back of a limousine, driven by the taciturn Celine (Scob) into Paris to drive him from place to place for a series of appointments. He is given a file as he approaches each one. When he arrives at each destination and exits the limousine, he is not the same as he entered the limousine.

In one location he’s an old crone begging for change, mumbling about how sad her lot in life is. The next he’s a virtual reality ninja warrior whose shortcomings lead him into a reptilian sex session with…well, a kind of snake-like alien dragon thingy. Then he’s a nearly-mute chain-smoking sewer-dwelling troglodyte who kidnaps a supermodel (Mendes) from a famous Paris cemetery (where the headstones read “see my website”) and takes her to his subterranean lair where he changes her dress into a Muslim outfit after which he strips naked and lays with his head in her lap (and with a raging erection) while she sings him to sleep with a lullaby.

He’s a disapproving father with an unpopular teenage daughter who lies about her misery. Which gives him a full opportunity to show what assholes fathers can be. Then he meets an old lover (Minogue) for possibly the last time, in a bittersweet melancholy musical number – you read that right, a musical number. Not so much with dancing and production effects but more a solo act with a certain wistfulness. It’s actually quite moving.

He’s an assassin killing someone who looks suspiciously like himself. He’s an old man on his deathbed consoling his beloved niece and saying goodbye. And finally, he’s a family man with a highly unusual family.

We get the sense that he’s being filmed in all of these appointments – for whom? What for? The inside of his limousine is much bigger than the outside, a kind of low-tech TARDIS with a make-up table and costumes – tall enough to stand up in, although from the outside it wouldn’t appear so.

There are connections to other films here. Scob, who once starred in a horror film called Eyes Without a Face dons the mask she wore in that film near the end of this one. Lavant’s troglodyte character has also made a previous appearance – in the Carax-directed segment of the anthology film Tokyo! complete with the same Godzilla-like musical accompaniment. His appearance is far more brief here (and thankfully, no courtroom scene afterwards) but like all of the scenes is oddly touching in one way or another.

Da Queen had a hard time with this movie. She’s not really into movies that don’t have some kind of sense. To her and to others who find this a hard movie to get behind, the thing to remember here is that this is a film meant to be experienced rather than watched passively. You are meant to let the images and dialogue wash over you and let it take you wherever your mind wanders to.

I admit that I have to be in the right frame of mind for a film like this and I wasn’t completely there when I saw it at the Enzian. Not all the segments connected with me (the crone sequence for example was too brief and nothing really happened; the father/daughter sequence just rang false to me) but those that did connected deeply, either through the fascinating images or the places they took my mind/heart/both to.

Lavant gives a magnificent performance, his pliable face changing with each segment. Each mood that is engineered here is different from the one that preceded it, sometimes subtly. Overall there’s a kind of bittersweet vibe that is like a moment of nostalgia for a moment that has been lived once and will never be lived in again. There is enough whimsy to bring a smile to the face but not enough to get us to French surreality – this is no Cirque du Soleil.

This isn’t a movie that spoonfeeds things to its audience; you have to work for it and use your noggin and your heart. That might not be why you go to the movies – you might be looking to turn your mind and heart off for an hour or two and that’s okay. Holy Motors is a movie for people who like puzzles, who like a good challenge. It’s abstract art and what you bring into the theater is largely going to determine how you view Holy Motors. It’s not for everybody – but it might be for you.

REASONS TO GO: Sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always intriguing. Lavant gives a performance that is multi-faceted.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be disjointed and jarring. Doesn’t always make sense.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images, sexuality and brief graphic nudity, some violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The supermodel part was written with Kate Moss in mind and offered to her; she seriously considered it but her impending wedding was more of a priority (imagine that) so she passed. The part went to Eva Mendes instead but the character is still called Kay M in honor of who it was written for.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. No doubt about it, the critics love it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forbidden Zone

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo)


Detective Dee don't need no steenkeen captions!

Detective Dee don’t need no steenkeen captions!

(2010) Adventure (Indomina) Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Chao Deng, Jean-Michel Casanova, Yan Qin, Jinshan Liu, Aaron Shang, Deshun Wang, Lu Yao, Jialu Zhang, Yonggang Huang, Richard Ng, Teddy Robin, Xiao Chen. Directed by Tsui Hark

One of the things I most like about Tsui Hark’s films is that often they contain everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes, that too) – adventure, outrageous plots, lush settings, fantasy, action, a kind of Peckinpah-ish loner hero, breathtaking martial arts and beautiful heroines. They don’t always make sense to Western eyes (and I suspect quite a few Eastern ones) but they are always pure entertainment. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed.

In seventh century China, the coronation for Empress Wu Zetian (C. Lau) approaches. She will be the first female empress in the history of China, so it’s a pretty big deal – and not everyone is happy about it. To placate her opponents (and perhaps as a monument to her own ego which was said to be considerable) she builds a gigantic Buddha statue with her own face. During an inspection, one of the architects bursts into flames unaccountably and perishes.

Police officer Pei Donglai (Deng) investigates, his suspicions turning to the surviving builder Shatuo (Leung) who lost a hand while imprisoned for taking part in a rebellion eight years prior. When Pei’s superior bursts into flame in front of the empress with Shatuo nowhere nearby, the empress consults the Chaplain, who communicates through a magic stag. The stag informs her that she needs to release Detective Dee (A. Lau) from prison, where he has been languishing in prison for leading the rebellion Shatuo was also jailed because of, for the past eight years.

The empress sends her attendant Shangguan Jing’er (Li) to fetch Dee from prison but shortly after leaving they are attacked by assassins. Later, while staying at an inn, she attempts to seduce Dee on the orders of the Empress but their coitus is interruptus, once again by assassins. Some guys just can’t catch a break.

When Dee sees a bird struck by one of the assassins arrows burst into flame when it comes into contact with sunlight, he examines the arrows and discovers they are coated in an unknown poison that does that very thing. After some research, he discovers that the poison is the extract of a rare fire beetle that was once used for medicinal purposes.

That sets Dee and his associates Jing’er and Pei – neither one of which he fully trusts – into a web of corruption, deceit and murder with the very throne of China at stake. The further Dee investigates, the fewer people he can trust and when he finally discovers the spider at the center of the web he will not just be fighting for his own life but the lives of thousands.

Like many Tsui Hark films (which include such Hong Kong classics as Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story) this has a mish-mash of genres that go flying at you like a storm of shuriken in a samurai movie. This isn’t as frenetically paced as some of his other films but when the action sequences come they come straight for your throat.

Andy Lau, one of the most popular action heroes in China, is at the core of this movie and he carries it with a mixture of CSI and wu xiu moves. Dee is a combination of Wong Kar Fei (a legendary Chinese martial artist) and Sherlock Holmes, his powers of deduction proving to be as formidable as his martial arts moves. Lau makes both sides of the character blend together and be believable – as believable as lead characters in a Tsui Hark movie get at any rate.

Carina Lau (no relation that I’m aware of) is positively regal as the empress, giving her a Queen Victoria-like “We are NOT amused” mien but with an exceedingly clever and politically savvy mind below the pomp and circumstance. She is quite capable of anything and could well be a terrible tyrant that will ruin China for centuries to come.  Lau carries off the part nicely, all the more impressive as this is her first feature role in four years.

There is a lot of CGI – a lot – and not all of it is top of the line which can be irritating to audiences used to much more of a blend between the real and the digital. The practical sets are magnificent however and breathtaking at times. While for the most part the film moves along, it also drags occasionally and might have benefitted from some further trimming although to be fair American audiences tend to be less patient with longer films than audiences elsewhere in the world.

This is entertainment with a capital E and most people except for real movie buffs don’t know a thing about it or Tsui Hark. While this isn’t his best work ever, it is certainly very representative of his style and you could do worse than using it as a starting point. Certainly if you’re looking for something different but not necessarily requiring a lot of brain power to enjoy this would be right up your alley. Give it a try – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Andy Lau is at his best, bringing gravitas and kickass martial arts moves. Carina Lau is regal. Production values are something truly to behold.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: CGI is weak in places. Could have been trimmed about 20 minutes off of the film and still have been okay.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and plenty of martial arts and fantasy violence, with some hints of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Detective Dee is based on a real Chinese folk hero, Di Renjie who lived during the Tang dynasty (approximately the 7th century) who became popularized in the West in a series of novels by Robert van Gulik where he was known as Judge Dee.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.7M on a $20M production budget; this was a huge hit in China and elsewhere in Asia.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cast a Deadly Spell

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Zero Dark Thirty

The Imposter


The Imposter

An enigma in a grey hoodie.

(2012) Documentary (Indomina) Frederic Boudin, Carey Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide, Charlie Parker, Nancy Fisher, Bryan Gibson, Bruce Perry, Phillip French, Codey Gibson, Adam O’Brian, Anna Ruben, Cathy Dresbach, Alan Teichman, Maria Jesus Hoyos, Ken Appledorn. Directed by Bart Layton

 

The darkness inside our souls is often simply incomprehensible to the rest of the world. “Why on earth would they do that?” is a question we find ourselves asking more often than not. Sometimes there really isn’t an answer to that question.

In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished without a trace on his way home from playing basketball in the park. At first, the police in San Antonio (where he and his family lived) were not too excited – after all, Nicholas often ran away and had in fact had a row with his mom that morning. But he always came home the next day.

That didn’t happen this time and hours stretched into days into weeks into months and then into years. The cops had made an attempt to find him but after awhile gave up the search until only his mother Beverly Dollarhide and sister Carey Gibson and her husband Bryan were the only people really looking for him and even they were beginning to lose hope that they’d find him alive.

Then three years and four months after his disappearance the family gets an incredible call. Nicholas had been found in Linares, Spain. He’d been through an incredible ordeal of torture, sexual abuse and brain washing, suffering extreme punishment for speaking in his native English to the point that he now spoke with a French accent. His blue eyes had been dyed brown with acid. So traumatized is the young boy that he can scarcely remember any of his life before the kidnapping, which he attributed to rogue elements in the military.

He is welcomed home with open arms nonetheless. His sister flies to Spain to fetch him and upon hugging him, she recognizes his nose and other features. Gone is the outgoing, almost cocky young boy and in his place is a paranoid, terrified young man who while seeming nice enough is still showing signs of an enormous trauma. After an interview with the FBI, agent Nancy Fisher is determined to locate the people responsible for his ordeal and bring them to justice.

But not everyone is convinced. Private detective Charlie Fisher, hired by the television tabloid “Hard Copy” to gain an interview with the boy, becomes suspicious and compares the ears of this young man with the ears from a picture of Nicholas Barclay just before he was kidnapped. They don’t match. Also forensic psychologist Bruce Perry after examining Nicholas realizes that this isn’t the same boy.

In fact, he’s not even a boy – he’s 23 years old and he’s not American, he’s a Frenchman of Algerian descent. His name is Frederic Boudin and he is wanted by Interpol for impersonating younger teenagers in exchange for lodging and board in youth homes all over Europe. He has dreamed of being accepted into a loving family and living in America all his life and he soon realized that Nicholas Barclay was his ticket to his dreams. Which leads to several questions; why did the family accept someone who was so obviously not their son as Nicholas? Why would Boudin do something so heinous and foolish – he had to know he would be found out eventually, right? And if this wasn’t Nicholas, what happened to him?

All good questions and there aren’t any easy answers for any of them. Layton uses interviews (primarily with Boudin and Carey Gibson) to look into what happened. He also uses actors to re-create certain scenes that are crucial to the story. The results are taut and prone to causing shivers in even the strongest of viewers.

Boudin is a charming sort who is utterly amoral and borderline psychotic. He lies as easily as he smiles and trust me, he smiles a lot so much of what he says must be taken with a grain of salt. He only shows real emotion when talking about his upbringing with a grandfather who, disgusted with his black Algerian father, abuses the boy whom he thinks is unworthy of his name.

This is one of those movies that doesn’t end with all the answers right in front of you. If anything, you wind up with more questions than when you started. I kind of regret that the filmmakers entitled the film  the way they did – I think that Boudin’s deception might have had more impact if it was held back longer in the film. However, I understand why they did it – the movie, after all, isn’t strictly about Boudin and his caper but about Dollarhide and her family as well – and about young Nicholas Barclay. Who the imposter truly is in this film is left up to the audience to decide – and a tough decision it is, too.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy and sometimes downright scary. Boudin is compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: Can make audiences awfully uncomfortable.  Sometimes a little too slick.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a lot of f-bombs among other bad words. There is implied child abuse, sexual abuse and violence. The theme is definitely adult.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Layton has written and directed several documentary features for television. This is his first feature to be released theatrically.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100. The reviews are very, very good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Changeling

AMATEUR PSYCHOLOGY LOVERS: There is so much going on here you’ll spend hours discussing the psychology of the various participants with other audience members.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: White Irish Drinkers