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Self aware but not Smarmy
It's refreshing to see a film that knows the true meaning of the word "homage" -- something done or given in acknowledgment or consideration of the worth of another -- rather than "rip off," which is something we see far too often in films, especially horror movies.
Douglas Schulze's Mimesis is a clever homage to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead on one hand and a modern "thrill killer" movie on the other. After an opening scare starring Courtney Gaines, the audience is taken to a horror convention where Alphonze Betz (Sid Haig) rails against the media blaming horror movies for real life horrors. In the audience are Russell (Taylor Piedmonte) and his unlikely pal Duane (Allen Maldonado).
Russell is a horror fan while Duane is more keen on meeting some of the hotties at the con including Judith (Lauren Mae Shafer), a goth girl who invites the boys to a party later that night. Thinking he'll get some, Duane convinces Russell to drive out to the spooky farmhouse where they encounter some out-of-place regular people and a number of silent, spooky dudes all made up in makeup. Before the party gets too "dick in the mashed potatoes" crazy, Russell and Duane are down for the count, waking up dressed in different clothes and hanging out in some eerily familiar settings.
There's no "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" line in Mimesis but much of the rest of Night of the Living Dead is there as our protagonists find themselves cast in a living remake of the film, complete with flesh-tearing zombies.
Thus, Mimesis becomes a film with disparate characters trapped in a farmhouse with a menacing presence outside but the presence isn't supernatural, it's psychotic. Additionally, the script by Schulze and Joshua Wagner is incredibly self-aware, playing with and against the plot of NOTLD along with more current films where strangers toy with innocents (Them, Inside, High Tension, etc.).
The Killing of John Lennon (2006)
The Lesser of Two Chapmans
"I hate the movies. They're phony, so goddamn phony," says Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. Other than The Wizard of Oz, Chapman isn't much of a film fan. The Mark David Chapman (Jonas Ball) in The Killing of John Lennon would probably disagree. Despite the opening credit in Andrew Piddington's film that "All of Chapman's Words are His Own," his Chapman liberally quotes Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now. Likewise, Piddington's direction liberally quotes Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Oliver Stone, and Spike Lee.
The Killing of John Lennon skips backwards and forwards in time quite a bit in the first two acts. The narrative begins in September, 1980 with Mark David Chapman in Hawaii. The audience sees glimpses of him working as a security guard, freaking out about his overbearing, oversexed mother (Krisha Fairchild), berating his soft spoken wife (Mie Omori), hassling scientologists, and pretending to be a sniper. Chapman must be making good money with his crappy job. While he drives a shitbox car, he can afford a gun and two trips from Hawaii to New York.
The aborted first "mission" to execute John Lennon doesn't add much to the story but appears to be included for the sake of accuracy. Unfortunately, this care about details isn't consistent. Two of the more obvious gaffes have a September 1980 news broadcast mentions that the presidential election is "next Tuesday" (a few months early) and a convicted Chapman is sent to Riker's Island instead of Attica.
The pacing of Piddington's film is clunky. Once Lennon has been shotfar more graphically than in Chapter 27 which keeps the camera on Chapman throughout the killingThe Killing of John Lennon runs out of steam but remains on screen for another 40 minutes! This final act ambles aimlessly through police interviews, psychiatric interviews, and scenes of Chapman in prison where his narration grow tiresome.
The Chapman of The Killing of John Lennon sees himself as an agent of change. He's ending the '60s with a .38 and helping to usher in a new era lead by Ronald Reagan. Election posters line the entrance of the library where Chapman rediscovers The Catcher in the Rye and a Reagan stump speech plays over the opening of the film. With a Chapman more indebted to Travis Bickle than Holden Caufield, the brief inclusion of John Hinkley Jr's assassination attempt of Reagan could have been interesting. Hinkley was another proponent of The Catcher in the Rye and swore allegiance to Jodie Foster after repeated viewings of Taxi Driver. With a dearth of material to keep viewers engaged, perhaps Piddington should have considered exploring the Hinkley parallels further.
If you can imagine Fred Rogers ("Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood") impersonating Travis Bickle, you have a close approximation of Jonas Ball's performance as Mark David Chapman. Though his "accent" is mentioned, there's little trace of Chapman's Southern roots present in Ball's vocalization. The actor is also lacking the girth, Jim Jones glasses, and unassuming politeness of the killer. This Chapman looks more like Jim Morrison gone to seed. Leto's Chapman soars to heights and sinks to lows swiftly, often sounding like a petulant child. Ball is very even in his delivery, giving his Chapman much more of a sinister air.
The Killing of John Lennon utilizes the multi-format approach popularized by Oliver Stone's JFK and Natural Born Killers. Piddington merely seems to be following Stone's example, adding nothing of his own. Things go from bad to worse in the third act which not only meanders in tone but appears to have been made as a student film and tacked on as an afterthought. The interview of Chapman by a Bellvue psychiatrist looks as if it were shot while the cameraman was asleep. Though, at nearly two hours (and half that filler), sleep is the most natural response to this sloppy film
Strong Cast, Unsurprising Plot
A few years ago there was an incredible segment on NPR's "This American Life" about a cleaner of crime scenes. Shortly thereafter, Pruitt Taylor Vince played a character that felt indebted to this NPR piece on "C.S.I." ("Swap Meet"). The bringing together of science and death was perfect for the CBS show. I wasn't so sure if such a character could survive a Renny Harlin film.
Pity poor Renny Harlin. It still feels that he's trying to recover from CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995). His last few films have been lucky to even snag a U.S. theatrical release (MINDHUNTERS wasn't one of these), much less a festival screening. So, that must mean that Harlin is back on top, right? Yes and no.
That CLEANER is playing a film festival is a vote of confidence in the Finnish filmmaker. Yet, CLEANER is a strange choice for a festival program. It's very much a straight-forward thriller along the lines of KISS THE GIRLS or U.S. MARSHALLS. The presence of Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and Luis Guzman certainly does well to give the film some credibility and solid performances (though Eva Mendes feels completely out of her league). The script by Matthew Aldrich is a solid, albeit fairly predictable, effort and Harlin does a capable workman's job bringing it to life. I won't object to seeing this one again on cable.
Dr. Plonk (2007)
This comedy from Australia is set in 1907 where Dr. Plonk (Nigel Lunghi), resident genius, becomes convinced that the world is doomed to end in 101 years. When the small minds of Parliament refuse to heed Dr. Plonk's claims, the good doctor takes it upon himself to build a time machine in order to visit the world during the End of Days.
Plonk and his deaf assistant, Paulus (Paul Blackwell) travel to and fro the temporal flow in hopes of acquiring the evidence needed. What adds to the hilarity of Rolf De Heer's work is that the entire piece is shot as if it were from Dr. Plonk's era. The black and white film is silent (save for a quaint score by Graham Tardif). The acting is broad and the comedy would feel at home in a Mack Sennett work.
While some may complain that the silent film conceit is a cheap stunt to make up for a thin storyline or that the work didn't look primitive enough, I felt that it all came together nicely. The physicality of the actors (especially Lunghi) and roughness of effects / stage settings (the time travel machine is a wooden box) lent themselves to the cinematography of Dr. Plonk's era. Quite nice.
San taam (2007)
My Partner Sees Ghosts
While I like the name "MAD DETECTIVE," due to the double meaning of "made," I think that this HK film should bare a more classic HK title such as "MY PARTNER SEES GHOSTS" (since HAUNTED COP SHOP was taken). MAD DETECTIVE is a parboiled supernatural police thriller starring Lau Ching-wan as Inspector Bun, a brilliant detective who went a little over the edge when presenting his retiring boss a present that only Vincent Van Gogh could have appreciated.
Years later, Ho (Andy On) visits his spiritual sifu in an attempt to break the case of Wong (Lee Kwok Lun), a cop who went missing when he and his partner, Chi-Wai (Lam Ka Tung) were in pursuit of a suspect. It doesn't take long for Bun to come out of retirement and see that something is very wrong with Chi-Wai. Rather than being one man, Chi-Wai is a seven spirit collective (with each perhaps representing an aspect of the Seven Deadly Sins). Ho doesn't know whether to buy into Bun's sixth sense or simply watch in awe and hope that there's more than madness to Bun's method.
Unfortunately, the "secret" of the case isn't very difficult to discern and the audience can most likely beat Ho and Bun to the punch (especially as Ho gets more dense as the film goes on). The addition of a "B Storyline" or even simply more of the better elements of the main storyline would have reduced the muddled feel of the film's second act. Too often MAD DETECTIVE feels like a rejected pilot from the makers of "Medium" or "Ghost Whisperer." A fairly enjoyable bit of HK fluff, don't be surprised when the U.S. remake is announced.
Ex Drummer (2007)
The Basest Elements of Trainspotting
Remember how depressing Danny Boyle's TRAINSPOTTING gets near the end? The dead baby, AIDS, addition. Imagine a movie that starts with that dark tone and goes on from there and you're thinking of a film similar to EX DRUMMER.
What starts out like a fun-filled lark about three societal rejects starting up a band with writer Dries (Dries Van Hegen) on drums turns ash black before the credits are even over. As soon the band's singer brains a woman with a brick (for fun), we know that the good times are over. Sodomy, rape, and homophobia are used as punchlines in Koen Mortier's distasteful work. I was often curious if Mortier's script was collecting highlights of Herman Brusselmans's novel as the storyline often felt disjointed, giving the film the feel of driving down an unpaved road. Despite the subject matter and the "shocking for shock's sake" story, EX DRUMMER was visually interesting and managed to keep me in my seat (and my lunch in my stomach) for the entire duration.
Château of A Thousand Corpses
To say that this French thriller is derivative would be a compliment. FRONTIERES follows a road map of other previous films. It travels from RESERVOIR DOGS Place down PSYCHO Lane as five (soon to be four) friends escape Paris with a duffel bag full of cash. There's a signpost up ahead. It reads "FRONTIERES" with an arrow pointing right to HOSTEL and one pointing to the left to Texas CHAINSAW MASSACRE (in little letters below that it says "the remake"). A little on up the road there's a detour marked THE DESCENT. All of these places are in the idyllic French countryside in the county of HAUTE TENSION.
Throw in a Nazi war criminal as a patriarch, some terrifically hot girls, and a few thuggish brutes and you've got all the makings of the next Rob Zombie film. I was casting the American remake in my head as the events of FRONTIERES predictably unfolded. The joke, of course, is that the film is named FRONTIERES but it doesn't boldly go into any territory that horror fans (especially those enthralled with torture porn horror) haven't been to before.
My Winnipeg (2007)
A Fever Dream
A love poem to Canadian auteur Guy Maddin's soon-to-be-former home, MY WINNIPEG feels like a fever dream that brings together past, present, and future. Repeated words and phrases form a hypnotic cadence as Maddin's cinematic stand-in (Darcy Fehr) chugs through the snowy darkness. "Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Winnipeg," is the chant, rising and falling like the locomotive drone of the night train carrying its somnambulistic fares through Manitoba's premiere city.
Winnipeg; heart of the heart of Canada, the place that raised Maddin. With a hockey arena for a father and a hair salon for a mother (for more hockey and hairdressing see Maddin's earlier COWARD BENDS THE KNEE), Madding explores the structural arteries of his home town and revisits the history of himself and his city. Narrated by the filmmaker, the prose of the film (courtesy of long-time Maddin crony George Toles) is an overwrought poem of maniacal hyperbole and enthusiastic linguistic gymnastics; a perfect pitch for the fractured visuals of Maddin's multimedia pastiche. Looking like a daguerreotype picture postcard of this snowbound wonderland, MY WINNIPEG typifies Maddin's mad genius and captures his sordid relationship with his home.
Le deuxième souffle (2007)
Looks nice but unnecessary...
Based on the novel Un Reglement de Comptes by Jose Giovanni on which legendary auteur Jean-Pierre Melville based his classic 1966 film, one has to admire the balls on Alain Corneau for tackling the same source material. A more colorful adaptation of the Giovanni novel, SECOND BREATH rejects all things black and white. Headlamps are amber and there's even a jaundiced light over black and white crime scene photos. In fact, Corneau's SECOND BREATH isn't just colorful; it's garish. Hues are saturated to stratospheric levels.
Apart from the color and some intensified violence, Corneau's version of SECOND BREATH is an exercise in redundancy for fans of the original Melville film. It's not to say that Corneau's film is bad by any stretch of the imagination. It's simply just not necessary.
My Enemy's Enemy (2007)
Want To Know Why The U.S. Is Hated?
I never consider myself worldly or well-learned until I see a "No Duh Documentary." I'm not an expert on the U.S. policy of hiring and protecting Nazi war criminals but MY ENEMY'S ENEMY didn't manage to tell me anything that I didn't already know about the recruitment of "The Butcher of Lyon," Klaus Barbie, and his post-WWII life in Bolivia. Barbie's greatest hits include the deportation of 44 children to a death camp, the murder of French Resistance leader Jean Moulin, backing several South American putsches, and teaching the U.S. a thing or two about effective torture methods (some still being used today).
This French/UK documentary showcases quite a few skeletons from the U.S. closet but spends more time demonstrating how the French government refused to bring Barbie to justice for several decades thanks to the post-WWII French government's comprise of unsavory Vichy loyalists on whom Barbie held dirt.
Another damning indictment of wrong-headed decisions made out of greed and alleged anti-communist fervor, MY ENEMY'S ENEMY holds more answers to Americans who just can't fathom why our country is so despised in the international arena. A truly enlightening film.