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Assured Filmmaking from a Mature Director
Tom Tykwer has come of age as a director with this film, and has dropped his sparkling visual flair in favor of straightforward yet sophisticated storytelling. His camera and editing are spot-on yet smart, as he carefully weaves a layered tale of two lost adults who rediscover and remake themselves through their relationship with another man.
His nuanced trio of characters deliberately play against gender types: Simon, the husband, is passive, quiet, artistic, and metaphorically female; Hanna, the wife, is assertive, successful, opinionated, and symbolically male; Adam, their paramour, a fertilization specialist who "brings life" to their dull routine, has both male and female sides.
The way their lives intertwine is both surprising and entertaining, and Tykwer not only explores their raw cores of emotional and physical need, but deftly and expertly exposes the humor in Hanna and Simon's awkward fumbling for new purpose.
What Woody Allen does for New York, Tykwer does for Berlin, showcasing the city as a vibrant center of art, culture, and yes, sexuality, filled with creative inhabitants who have gone there to remake themselves.
His intermittent visual collages of the character's lives inject new vitality to the stale montages we've all seen a million times; it's not that the screen has never been subdivided this way before, but that Tykwer's method of visual construction is meticulous and succinct -- like every frame of this film.
The result is an engaging, truthful, and non-traditional romance that leaves you feeling hopeful that love can tear down our seemingly permanent walls; yet another reason to set it in Berlin!
Conan the Barbarian (2011)
The Terrible Wrath of Darkest Gods
Director Marcus Nispel is undoubtedly the long-lost offspring of trash master and fellow German, Uwe Boll, as this film is so profoundly awful on every level that it's hard to think that it wasn't intentionally made this way.
Remarkably, the movie gets bad immediately and stays that way. One of its most jarring aspects is that it begins with Morgan Freeman's narration, which sounds so utterly out of place, with his comforting, slightly Southern drawl the total opposite of everything bloody and Cimmerian, that it instantly comes across like self-parody, as if we were seeing some schticky Mel Brooks interpretation after the fact. This ham-handed disregard for appropriate tone haunts every frame of the film.
The story fails to find the real Conan -- who in Robert E. Howard's stories is a smart, tough, brutal survivor -- and instead seems to reveal to us the underwhelming idea that Conan's just another hunky sword dude with a knack for slaughter.
The script inconsistently sticks to any epic poetic flair in the dialog, so that when such words are delivered, they feel forced and flat. The noted line "I live, I love, I slay, and I am content," is meted out with such lack of panache or feeling that I wanted to wash out Jason Momoa's mouth with soap, right after forcing him to watch Schwarzenegger -- not a great actor, by any means -- deliver the unforgettable tagline: "To crush your enemies, drive them before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women." But then again, John Milius bothered to direct his actors.
Stephen Lang (Colonel Quaritch of "Avatar") is the half-assed villain Khalar Zym, who inspires zero awe and no respect on his whatever quest for some supernatural thingy, which is such an afterthought that you constantly forget about it. And post plastic-surgery Rose McGowan as his witchy daughter Marique is so outrageously goth that you half-wish for a Sisters of Mercy musical cue every time she steps on camera; if only her performance received the same attention as her over-the-top costumes. Ron Perlman, as Conan's father, is simply wasted. Weep!
I'm totally sick of the short-attention-span style of storytelling. The filmmakers are so afraid that if some big action sequence doesn't occur every ten minutes, that we'll be bored; and of course, this quickly has the opposite effect, as we instead become bored from so much pointless, poorly shot and edited action unsupported by character or story. Video games often have more character development than this film, and yes, I'm specifically thinking of the comparatively Shakespearean struggles portrayed in Donkey Kong.
I bestowed two stars on this flick, as the second is for unintentional hilarity, of which the film has much. Its hyperbolic Hyborian cartoonishness makes you either wince or chuckle derisively. Hopefully, as many heads as roll on screen will also roll in Hollywood for this abortive, dreadful garbage.
Perhaps the noble Conan will someday get his proper due in a modern film. But not today.
All About Evil (2010)
Delicious, Delicious Blood!
Writer/director Josh Grannell, aka horror hostess Peaches Christ, has created a comedic bloodfest artfully designed to become a camp classic. Grannell pays overt homage to some of his favorite filmmakers, notably John Waters and gore auteur Herschell Gordon Lewis of "Blood Feast" fame, and gifts us with an enthusiastic romp to the dark side of film-making.
Natasha Lyonne, as librarian-turned-lunatic Deborah Tennis, channels various Hollywood grand dames to wild-eyed comedic effect; imagine if Bette Davis chewed scenery in one of Roger Corman's legendary Poe adaptations. Thomas Dekker of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" plays the star-struck film fan to boyish perfection. And satisfying cameos from the likes of Waters alumnus Mink Stole and fellow horror hostess Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira) round out a great cast. You're also treated to the best evil twins since "The Shining" played by Jade and Nikita Ramsey. And wildly entertaining turns from Noah Segan as dentally-challenged psycho Adrian, and Jack Donner (who's been in everything from "Buffy" to "Star Trek") as the crusty and overzealously murderous projectionist Mr. Twigs, round out Grannell's fantasy cast.
What's often most important to get from a film like this is the sense that cast and crew are enjoying themselves, and the fun shines through in every scene. Part of its delivered joy comes in spotting its numerous in-jokes, which touch on such diverse topics as horror film history or the local San Francisco drag scene. But an insider's knowledge of trivia isn't at all needed to appreciate the over-the-top and violently funny romp that Grannell delivers; instead, bring your love of exploitation and an enthusiasm for camp. Worth the price of admission alone are the parody film titles created by Tennis in the course of her filmicidal spree. And the movie has one of the best opening title sequences I've seen in years.
Much of the film was shot inside San Francisco's historic Victoria Theatre, a former vaudeville hall in the city's Mission district. Using such an authentic location is all part of Grannell's desire to create a red-inked love poem to the uniquely thrilling experience of watching horror films in a packed movie house.
Hopefully you'll get a chance to see "All About Evil" with its touring live stage show, featuring Peaches and her fright-inducing friends in person. It's a one-of-a-kind, in-your-face experience that's not like anything else you'll see in your local theater -- unless you've been going to Peaches' "Midnight Madness" shows in SF for the last 12 years.
Don't miss it -- hopefully coming to a theater near you!
Death Race (2008)
Fun, Fun, FUN!
Now here's an exploitation film that knows what a solid B-movie is supposed to be: an action-dense, amped-up, gore-soaked killfest. It's the cinematic equivalent of eating that entire box of Red Vines you bought at the snack bar, using them as candy straws to suck down your extra-large Coke.
As a fan of the original "Death Race 2000," I was pleased to see just enough of a shadow of the original movie inhabiting the skin of the new one. Roger Corman's name on the producing credits gave me hope at the start, and his seal of approval seemed to mean something, perhaps as counterweight to Paul W. S. Anderson's track record of shooting mediocre video game adaptations. Surprisingly, Anderson rises to the occasion, effortlessly elevating a cliché-rich but fast-moving script to the level of a satisfyingly adrenalin-fueled confection aimed like a bullet at the A.D.D.-addled brains of the short-attention-span generation.
Set in an "Escape From New York"-style dystopic prison-culture (that sounds suspiciously like current American society), slaughter happens, stuff blows up, and the weak are culled like bunnies caught in the headlights of gas-sucking American muscle cars. Fans of the "Twisted Metal" video game will love the newest wrinkle in the race, the addition of weaponry a needed bloody bump for version 2.0. And what a bump it is, with each car's chugging machine guns indiscriminately spewing hot rounds at every foe, shredding Detroit steel like it was used Kleenex. It's unabashed gun fetishism at its gleeful best, and it makes you want to strap an M60 to the hood of your Prius in order to cut your commute in half.
Jason Statham does his standard tough-guy job as the scowling Frankenstein, Joan Allen plays a ball-busting warden (perhaps a bit in the mold of Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched), and Ian McShane of "Deadwood" has a solid cameo as the prison-wise mechanic, Coach. Even Machine Gun Joe gets a new incarnation in the form of Tyrese Gibson, who thankfully is nothing like Stallone's blustering Italian meatball.
I loved it, and can't wait to see it again in a theater with enough bass to pump up those impact crunches to the bone-jarring level they deserve.
Hu die fei (2008)
An Effective Alternative to Waterboarding
This film is painfully, offensively bad. I was stunned that this was a Johnny To film, since he's a director of no small talent when it comes to crime dramas and gangster films. But clearly, romance is not his forte.
The script was the kind of amateurish glop you'd expect from a smitten teenage girl. Void of real drama, the attempts at character development were silly and pointless. Most scenes consisted of endless discussions between the leads about what might have been, or emotionally overwrought reactions to events. The dialog was agonizing to experience, and in constant violation of the "show, don't tell" rule of writing by having characters speak aloud lines that should have been subtext.
And then there's the music; the ugly, ugly music. Imagine drowning in sweet green cough syrup, choking on mouthfuls of saccharine while your brain is numbed into a surreal dextromethorphan haze. It's awful beyond description, wielded like a sonic sledgehammer in every single scene as a desperate attempt to manufacture emotion where none exists. Sawing one's ears off with a steak knife is the only appropriate response.
If you see a copy of this film, run screaming in the opposite direction as if it were a shattered vial of the Ebola virus -- exposure WILL cause you to vomit blood.
Diary of the Dead (2007)
Worst. Zombie. Movie. Ever.
I went to see this movie with great anticipation. After all, George Romero practically single-handedly created the American zombie movie genre by himself, with such classics as "Night of the Living Dead," with its brilliant commentary on racism, and "Dawn of the Dead," with its insightful satire of consumer culture. And of course, highfalutin cultural criticism aside, both of those films were balls-to-the-wall, kick-ass horror films in their own right. But with this latest installment in the "Dead" series, Romero seems to have forgotten how to make an engaging -- much less competently made -- horror movie. It's hard to see your cinema heroes fall, and Romero falls long and hard to a special purgatory reserved for film-school rejects who create self-indulgent amateur garbage. Every element of this movie is embarrassingly awful: the dunderheadedly clunky dialogue comes off like a third-grade Thanksgiving pageant; the acting is as broad and stupid as that of wanna-be thespians from a small town community theater performing in the local YMCA; the characters are stereotypes straight out of a 70's era TV show (even "Welcome Back, Kotter" had more complex characters); the editing is a constant annoyance that repeatedly calls attention to itself. More on the editing: Romero really (even desperately) wants us to know that he's intentionally making jump cuts by putting in a purple flash-frame overlaid with a "bleep" on the soundtrack every time he does so -- as if we've never seen a jump-cut before, and he doesn't want to startle us with this Radical New Editing Technique. And he clearly has no understanding of how current video camera technology looks or feels; or he imagines that his audience, who by now have suckled at the teat of Internet video for years, have no idea exactly what it looks like. Video supposedly uploaded to YouTube looks pristine, as if it was never compressed by their Flash codec that creates occasional blocky video artifacts. Yet any time we see footage taken from a source like a surveillance camera, not only is it also too clean, it has cartoonish video glitches in it of the kind you never see on actual surveillance footage. Romero's take on video technology is like the bad 80's TV version of what the film industry believes the average person thinks video is supposed to look like; in addition to YouTube, we've all seen "Cops" and "America's Funniest Home Videos" by now, and we all KNOW that REAL video looks nothing like what Romero shows us, and it's condescending that he thinks we won't notice. The film also couldn't decide whether it wanted to be serious capital-H Horror or a comedy, and failed miserably at both. It manages to suck all tension, drama, and fear out of every frame, to the point where you begin to wonder how much worse it could possibly get. Every single element of this movie was so mishandled as to be a distraction, and only served to constantly yank me out of my futile efforts to suspend my disbelief. Even the soundtrack was inappropriate for the realism they were trying to achieve, a fact even the filmmakers seemed to understand, since they felt obligated have one of the characters justify the use of the feeble soundtrack in voice-over. Speaking of the voice-over, I wanted to strangle the narrator every time she spoke, with her whiny-assed, lamely expository take on the events and her feelings about them. The movie's constant but laughable "Blair Witch" rip-off continually reminds you of how that groundbreaking film was so much better at the art of the faux documentary. I also found myself longing to see "Cloverfield" again to enjoy true technical mastery combined with an understanding of how hand-held video should be simulated to maintain the illusion of being real. What a tragic waste of 95 minutes of your life. Retire now while we still have some fond memories of your previous work, George.
The Prestige (2006)
A Stylish, Uniquely Twisted Period Piece
What "The Prestige" does very well is recreate a period of show business history near the turn of the century in which competition between magicians was serious and intense. The workings of the complicated illusions are gorgeously brought to life via smartly detailed apparatus that replicate the actual mechanics of Victorian legerdemain.
Much of the film rings very true, such as the all-consuming obsessions of the lead characters to be the best and outdo all others. It's an easy step to accept that such unwavering determination spills over into deadly territory, as rival magicians suave Rupert Angier (a riveting performance by Hugh Jackman) and audacious Alfred Borden (Christian Bale effortlessly playing a brooding lower-class Brit) each seek to wreak continuing revenge upon the other.
The story, though adapted from a novel, feels like a perfect fit for director Nolan's sensibilities, as the machinations of the two men become increasingly convoluted during a back-and-forth tug of wits that keeps you guessing in the style of Nolan's "Memento." As the game grows increasingly deadly, and threatens to consume all they love, the film becomes a fascinating study in single-mindedness.
The work is epic in sweep, beautifully filmed, and strongly acted. The only odd note in casting is David Bowie as Nikola Tesla (he looks nothing like the actual Tesla, if you care about these sort of things, and his appearance calls attention to itself as superstar casting often does), but Mr. Bowie holds his own. Solid performances are all around, with Michael Caine adding dignity and depth as the old master, Scarlett Johanssen as the as the lovely stage assistant who becomes the third point in a twisted love triangle, and even Andy Serkis (Gollum!) in a memorable supporting role.
The introduction of Tesla adds yet another twist, as the film shifts from real-but-possible stage illusion to steam-punkish sci-fi. This transition is a hard note to pull off, since the beginning of the film doesn't quite suggest such a direction, but if you're willing to let Nolan lead you on the journey into increasingly fantastic realms, the narrative rewards you with thought-provoking moral and dramatic exploration of the issues raised.
A truly entertaining movie, and an original, unusual, dark ride -- well worth seeing in a theater for its grand scope and vision.
Tao no tsuki (1997)
Beyond Good and Evil -- to Ultimate Wackiness
Few films try to jam as much into their plots as this one, and it pulls it off in the best tradition of zany, creative, mid-budget exploitation film.
Samurai, aliens, magicians, and a demonic monster all converge to make this adventure complete, and its bloodthirsty finale will appease many people's need for gore. You'll wonder what arcane drugs writer/director Keita Amamiya took to come up with the loony and violent scenarios that populate this twisted fantasy/sci-fi hybrid.
Amamiya has done many of the "Kamen Rider" pictures, which explains his need to have sexy, helmeted female UFO-nauts in this picture. Indeed, other than the extreme violence, the film feels like a 1960s-era movie, complete with a stop-motion beast straight out of a Ray Harryhausen film.
Not to be missed for fans of bizarro midnight movies!
"Orpheus and Eurydice" for Miike Fans
It hit me like a thunderbolt about two days after I saw the film that the plot is that of "Orpheus and Eurydice." I don't know how intentional this connection is, yet for those who think that the film's events are arbitrary or meaningless, I beg to differ, as such is clearly not the case.
Minami, the young Yakuza, is analogous to Orpheus, and Ozaki, his yakuza "brother," is the Eurydice whom Minami must rescue from the underworld (Nagoya).
Right at the beginning, as the two drive to Nagoya, Minami almost drives into a river, but slams on his brakes just before entering the water. Ozaki is whiplashed by the stop and seems to "die." This is the point at which they hit the river Styx that the dead cross to reach the underworld.
In the next scene, they are across, in "hell," and that's when everything begins to get really weird. Minami loses Ozaki, and must find him by passing a series of surreal challenges with demonic or supernatural figures (including a "broken" over-nurturing mother, a minotaur-like cow, several dead men, and gruesome trash compactors who crush bodies and remove their skins). Finally, Minami must rescue Ozaki after Ozaki's rebirth as a woman from their oyabun (boss), the king of the underworld -- who originally wanted Ozaki dead, but now wants him for a "bride."
Through all of this, Minami's "guide" is a man who, with his skin half-whitened, is like a person who can traverse both the living and dead worlds, as he is symbolically half-spirit.
It all fits very nicely. The more the more I examine this film, the more I love it. It's yet another brilliant Miike film laden with dreamlike imagery that gives it weight and power. This makes it a great match with Miike's previous "Visitor Q," another masterpiece of great symbolic kick and potent, unforgettable imagery.
Tang Bohu dian Qiuxiang (1993)
Another Hilarious Stephen Chow Film
"Flirting Scholar" follows Stephen Chow's long tradition of inspired looniness, and made me giggle out loud in reaction to its pure enthusiasm to entertain. His riffs on Chinese tradition are funnier when you have some context, but much of his humor is so outrageous that you'll laugh regardless, as many jokes, especially the physical comedy, are universal. While this isn't quite my favorite Chow film, it's definitely worth watching, and still a must-have item in any Chow collection.
Like many Chow films, "Flirting Scholar" takes a typically over-the-top approach to its comedy, and incorporates such elements as extremely physical slapstick, parody, kung-fu, cartoonish surrealism, and wacky references to other HK movies. To truly appreciate Chow you need to watch lots of HK cinema -- and after you have watched several of Chow's films, you will begin to pick up on running gags that appear in successive movies.
While not as masterfully executed or as narratively tight as one of his truly brilliant films, such as "God of Cookery," this film is simply so utterly crazy at times that it will nonetheless make you laugh out loud, as all of his films inevitably do.