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The Mind's Eye (2015)
"Almost Human" Director Out-"Scanners" "Scanners" sequels!
Here's a first for yours truly: a review of a yet-to-be-released film that's currently making the festival circuit. The 'secret movie' and highlight of Brooklyn's Nitehawk Cinema's Halloween 'Nite to Dismember'celebration turned out to be director Joe Bego's follow-up to "Almost Human," the very 80's (particularly Steve Moore's wall-to- wall electronic soundtrack) "The Mind's Eye." What "Turbo Kid" is to 80's post-apocalyptic movies "The Mind's Eye" is to David Cronenberg's "Scanners": a contemporary homage that looks/sounds like the genuine article, right down to the ugly-looking logo of the institute at the center of the intrigue. Per Begos' representative at the screening, the director's aim was to make the sequel/follow-up to "Scanners" that he feels the actual "Scanners" sequels didn't live up to. It takes an awful lot of trouble for "The Mind's Eye's" psychokinetic characters to flex their mental muscles. A simple ax or gun seems to do the trick better for most of the film. Even though it mercilessly teases early on that big exploding heads and psychokinetic duels are coming, it's not until the final act that "The Mind's Eye" truly goes berserk in a good way. You know, like "Rabid" and "The Brood" and, yes, "Scanners."
Personally I feel "The Mind's Eye" has some shortcomings in the casting of its leads. Either that or Begos deliberately went with actors that feel miscast (Graham Skipper) or way over the top (John Speredakos) to match similar bad casting in Cronenberg's late 70's/early 80's films. That would be an even more meta tribute to the Canadian master of body horror than the "Videodrome"-like opening titles/fonts that start the movie. At least the supporting cast is populated with low-budget horror luminaries, from Larry Fessenden ("I Sell the Dead") and Jeremy Gardner ("The Battery") to Noah Segan ("Starry Eyes") and Lauren Ashley Carter ("The Woman"). For a 2015 low-budget film that sets its story in the early 90's (which makes it feel closer to Cronenberg's prime decades) the action is decent and the deaths/gore off-the-charts groovy, something "Scanners 2 & 3" definitely skimped on. For fans of body horror missing the old Cronenberg now that the genuine article is doing mostly psychologically-heavy stuff (not that I'm complaining), "The Mind's Eye" will make for a pleasant and entertaining evening's entertainment. Me and the Nitehawk Halloween crowd really dug it.
Could have, should have been an avant garde contender.
Caught a 35mm screening of this rarity at NYC's Anthology Film Archives' Bridges in Argentinian CinemaRetrospective a few days ago. Disowned by its creator Edgardo Cozarinsky since '71 and not exhibited publicly until 2012 (which explains why the 35mm print was perfect and blemish-free, it hasn't been projected that much), this was the true discovery of last month's retrospective.
Deliberately episodic and disjointed, the through line of "(...)" is a priest (Jorge Alvarez) searching for something, which turns out to be a repressed homosexual desire that may be real or a projection of his repressed sexuality. Before reaching its anticlimactic climax this nameless priest runs into a pretty girl (Marcia Moreto), a bourgeois couple (Ernesto Schoó and Niní Gómez), a crazy general (Roberto Villanueva) and the perpetual presence of the Catholic Church in everyday Argentinian life.
The first 45 min. of "(...)" wallow in Godardian disregard for the conventions of cinema (not a surprise since Cozarinsky spent most of his adult life in Paris) and are so strong you tolerate that it runs in circles and out of gas by the end. If it had been widely released it would have been considered the start of many contemporary cinematic trends that have been adopted since. Between the crew cheering/jeering the pronouncements of an actor switching from nationalist military to capitalist businessman ("Shit, Brazil's so huge!"), the narration of a Calcutta documentary applied to footage of Buenos Aires circa 1970, a Lynchian dinner in which a crying baby doll is the main course and a Eucharism ceremony that dispenses color-coded contraceptive pills instead of bread you get the sense anti- clericalism and love of cinema ("Pausa!") are pillars of "(...)" as much as its homosexual identity politics and appreciation for the cultural movement in Argentina in the early 70's.
Good luck finding this film, but if you do tell it I said hi and thanks for the fun Saturday afternoon I spent in a dark room with it. :-P
Algunas chicas (2013)
Caught a theatrical screening of "Algunas Chicas" at NYC's Anthology Film Archives' Bridges in Argentinian Cinema Retrospective. Good intentions notwithstanding, this movie is the very definition of a trying to have it both ways. Loosely based on Cesare Pavese's "Tra Donne Sole" novella but set in an Argentinian picturesque countryside province, the movie appears at first to be about Buenos Aires surgeon Celina (Celina Rainero) coming back to her hometown to visit childhood friends. Then she gets involved with Paula (Agostina López), a girl who may or may not have attempted/succeeded in committing suicide. Two more girlfriends, Nené (Ailín Salas) and Maria (Agustina Muñoz) join in. As the foursome talk, fool around and kill time the distinction between past and present, id run amok and fantasy, dreams and reality blur into a pastiche of obtuse storytelling and scenes that become each individual viewers' Rorschach test about what they mean, if anything.
Take the annoying donkey braying after one of the girls accidentally misses her target while target-shooting in the woods. Is it real or collectively imagined? Is it actually a donkey braying at all? And what's with Celina's window showing constantly rotating rear-projected imagery? Or the least-sexy threesome featuring attractive actors ever filmed? Is the cab driver telling the same morbid story to both Celina and her husband the devil? "Algunas Chicas" is staged in such a way as to suggest everyone succeeded in their suicide and their restless spirits are just hanging around this particular hacienda... or these are just moody chicks having a couple of bad days. Think Argentinian "Last Year at Marienbad" crossed with a did-they-or- didn't-they "Virgin Spring" knockoff, except moving so slowly as to make the fabric of time seem eternal.
Les trottoirs de Saturne (1986)
Intellectual "Midnight in Paris"
Caught a rare 35mm of this movie at NYC's Anthology Film Archives during their 'Bridges in Argentinian Cinema Retrospective.' The highlight of this series of Argentinian movies curated by director Matías Piñeiro ("Viola," the upcoming "Princess of France") just happened to be a French movie that happens to be made, features and is about Argentinian exiles living in Paris.
A 35mm theatrical screening is as good as it gets to watch this otherwise-unavailable B&W drama revolving around world-class accordion player Fabian Cortes (Rodolfo Mederos, excellent), whose diva-like disappearance for days without warning is tolerated by his French girlfriend Danielle (Bérangère Bonvoisin), his fellow musicians, friends/artistic collaborators and admirers who regularly come see him play. That Fabian claims to speak to a long-dead patron saint of Argentinian accordion players is shrugged off, even though he swears he's not dreaming or talking to a ghost. Whenever they're not rehearsing, cooking, waxing philosophically, playing impromptu soccer matches or bitching about politics Fabian and their friends reminisce fondly about a Shangri-La type mythical version of Argentina named Aquilea they've made up. Then Fabian's guerrilla-involved sister Marta (Andrea Livier Aronovich) suddenly shows up, setting in motion a possibility that fills Fabian and his clique with both delight and fear: a chance to go to Aquilea for real.
Imagine of Jean-Luc Godard had directed "Midnight in Paris" as a B&W series of musical vignettes with a slow-burn conspiracy movie taking shape and you'd get a decent (though nowhere near accurate) idea what "Trottoirs de Saturne" feels like. At its core this is another love letter to Paris but an intellectual one. The city's welcoming arms to artists the world over is a romantic notion that is shown to only go so far in quelling an artists' innate need to reconnect and be loved by a nation's power structure that has rejected them. In one of the film's highlights Danielle (who is an immigration lawyer and helps Fabian's fellow immigrants) confronts her boyfriend about why Argentinian exiles should feel any different than other immigrants who also miss their homelands. That Fabian is willing to turn Danielle into the very exiled life he's rejecting by asking her to go with him to Aquilea speaks volumes about both their characters, which doesn't take away from the movie's cheerful embrace of artificiality as a means to tell its rather-unbelievable but rooted-in-reality story.
Good supporting performances (including director Hugo Santiago in a prominent non-credited role), gorgeous B&W cinematography, great music and some honest-to-goodness suspense and tension as the movie's final act unfolds makes "Les Trottoirs de Saturne" a small avant-garde gem.
Birdemic 2: The Resurrection (2013)
It Was Self-Awareness that Killed the Birds!
Went to a scarcely-attended midnight showing of this over the weekend with Ron his own self, Alan Bagh, in attendance (hi Alan). Was in the right state of mind and had a blast (our small group certainly laughed plenty) but, for filmmakers and audience alike, it's a typical case of sequel diminishing returns.
The magic of the original "Birdemic" (which I'd rank as a '10' fully aware of its "flaws" but giving it its due for all the laughter and fun I've had with it) was that James Nguyen and his actors clearly took what they were doing seriously and, combined with everyone's obvious "limitations," hit the 'so bad it's good' mother lode. Now, three years and built-in cult status later, Nguyen and his cast (many returning from the original "Birdemic", along with a new batch of... "faces") are fully aware of what is expected of them and seem to (a) be trying too hard and (b) repeat the same beats from the first movie. The 'business meeting with endless clapping' struck you as hilarious? There's a version of that here. The endless driving footage that opened the first movie? We get a different-but-essentially-the-same type of intro. Vietnamese restaurant cute meet? Motel room sex scene? In-your-face environmental agenda? Awkward club dancing (with the 'Hanging out with your family' guy singing)? Hitchcock worship references? Check, check, check, check and... he's dead... sorry, check.
The SFX, budget and Nguyen's skills (!) have clearly improved from before (i.e. they could afford to rent a boom mike and a tripod with wheels, which I know because I saw them reflected on windows/mirrors... several times!) but that's like being happy with PlayStation 1 graphics in 2013 after you liked your first taste of Turbografix/Genesis-caliber graphics in 2000. Hell, they probably spent more money blurring faces/signs in "Birdemic 2" than the entire cost of "Birdemic" several times over.
"Birdemic 2" goes completely and spectacularly off-the-rails several times though, and not in a cute or funny way (if the stone-death silence of the crowd in my theater is any indication). The introduction of cheesy human zombies and resurrected-from-the-past cavemen to the mix of bad things global warming is responsible for, gratuitous sleazy nudity (i.e. boobs) and a never-ending "ending" so insultingly bad/God- awful Nguyen had to put the 'Hanging out with your family' song over the credits (to buy back goodwill from many an upset viewer like myself) are just too freaking much to tolerate even for a bad movie connoisseur like "mua." The now-expected-but-still-eye-opening overall incompetence, bad acting and willful disregard for the most basic of filmmaking techniques (sound is still muffled and changes from shot to shot, birds are still mostly static, etc.) is now joined by Nguyen's new tech toys (borrowed from Tommy Wiseau no doubt): unnecessary green- screen photography and low-budget non-bird/blood CGI. There is one three-second shot in this movie (I will not spoil it) with such an obviously-cheap-but-why-not-shoot-it-practical CGI effect so unnecessary I was howling/crying from laughing so hard two minutes after it ended. The people in the theater tolerated my annoying laugh (and my laughter made them laugh even harder) because they had just witnessed the thing that was making me almost soil my pants from laughter. This one scene alone was worth the $10 ticket price, and can't wait to see the audience reaction when this eventually makes it to a "Rifftrax Live" show. :D
So there you have it: "Birdemic 2" is about 60-70% as funny as its predecessor, but the magic of the original is compromised now by a lack of new ideas (the beats are variations of the earlier stuff, except now set in and around Los Angeles), self-awareness and still-talentless filmmaking hold it in an awkward place. If you loved "Birdemic" you have to see this just to watch Alan Bagh pout and Whitney Moore kicking some bird butt (literally!) with a new hairdo. Just dial your expectations and be prepared to want to murder someone, anyone (don't do it though) when "Birdemic 2's" awful ending passes you by.
Black Dynamite (2009)
Best Spoof since the 80's ZAZ glory days!
This is what "Undercover Brother" and "Grindhouse" (minus the 'phony' trailers) wished they could have been but weren't: a tribute to a dismissed period of cinema that feels like it belongs (and comes from) its era.
But this isn't just a collection of random jokes or stabs at blaxploitation genre clichés without rhyme or reason. There is an actual story (convoluted and non-sensical but it's there, and even allows long scenes that advance the plot to unfold without a single obvious joke), there are real characters (over-the-top and cliché' but not two-dimensional walking cardboards) and there are action/fighting scenes (enhanced via the same seamless green screen/CG technology used in "Kung-Pow" a few years back) that make this an actual blaxpoitation movie that just happens to be funny because it's being so true and respectful to the genre it represents. Michael Jai White looks and inhabits his lead role like he stepped out of the 1970's; it's the best casting for a movie since Christopher Reeve got the Superman/Clark Kent role, and I'm not kidding. Supporting actors really get into their blaxpoitation roles (Arsenio Hall and Tommy Davidson are hilarious in too-brief cameos) but they don't overplay their OTT personalities or overstay their welcome. The way "Black Dynamite" gets around its 'R' rating to sneak in a graphic sex scene is not only genius but ties directly with the movie's best scene in which the 'heroes' crack the code in a cafeteria. And the orphanage scene has to be seen to be believed. :-P Only the overblown finale that pushes things way past the breaking point (think "Shoot 'Em Up" and yes, it's that big a misfire) betrays the cinematic illusion that this is a 70's flick that's been rotting in a vault somewhere.
I got my $12.50's worth and will gladly wait for the DVD because I'm sure there's a joke or two I missed. The one's that hit the mark are hilarious though. Don't listen to the DVD Talk reviewer on this one (they're usually right but this time he's way off), "Black Dynamite" is a winnah!