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Revered French filmmaker Patrice Leconte attempts to craft a wordless documentary in the vein of Koyannisqatsi but generally misses the boat, its visual artistry hampered by a vague, simplistic "message". Had this been made by Cambodian filmmakers, I might be obliged to think differently, as undoubtedly they would have, too. Granted, it's full of pretty imagery (mostly of poor people, of course) and a sweeping (though inappropriately leading) tragi-operatic score by a massive European orchestra with choir seen on screen at regular intervals, most inappropriately at the end. There's a French subheading/tagline for the film that translates directly to "Open Your Eyes" which indicates that -- in spite of defenders who think the film deserves a more exalted reputation because of its music and imagery alone, or those who see no editorializing going on -- Leconte clearly WAS trying to make a "statement" with this film, a la such broader-canvassed productions as the aforementioned Koyannisqatsi, Baraka or Chronos. But where the directors of those films made that message one part of a larger commentary on our crazy world, and usually contrasted it with imagery of bustling, technology-choked metropolises and the like, Leconte seems to have thought that a vanilla travelogue of seemingly random yet very carefully selected scenes of lower-class, rural Cambodian malaise and ennui (read: people staring into the distance not realizing they're being filmed) set to an emotionally-charged choral musical backdrop would be enough to "open the eyes" of his audience to how the have-nots of East Asia really live. Instead, his show comes off like the work of a (typically white-privileged) 20-something millennial Social Justice Warrior whose sense of righteousness and predictable reverence for all things East Asian is not matched by a well-informed understanding of his host country and what sets him apart from the unwitting people he's essentially exploiting for profit. Apart from pictorially, DOGORA doesn't seem like the work of an accomplished auteur like Leconte. It's a tourist video with an "epic" soundtrack -- by the noticeably all-white Bulgarian State Orchestra -- layered in to "open your eyes" to its rather shallow, ill-defined "message": that the indifferent, often bored-looking faces of rural and small-town Cambodians going about their day-to-day lives are actually the face of a people locked in some kind of eternal struggle that the filmmaker doesn't actually identify.
The concept of director Greg McLean and producer/writer James Gunn's
THE BELKO EXPERIMENT won't seem overly original to those who've seen
BATTLE ROYALE or really any movie in which people are forced to hunt or
kill folks they know and like, but in Gunn's hands it's a whole lot
more fun: office workers for a Bogota-based non-profit are trapped in
their shiny office tower and told by a mysterious intercom voice that
they've got to murder a certain number of their own before a
pre-determined deadline or double that number will be killed via the
company's "alternate method". To prove the seriousness of the
situation, several employees' heads are suddenly ripped open by a
mysterious force. After several attempts at teamwork to devise methods
of contacting the outside world result in even more bodies as
punishment, some of the (literally) more mercenary members of the
management team decide that the voice sort of has a point, and set
about liberating several handguns from a downstairs vault, not long
after other sluggos have raided the cafeteria of its sharpest utensils.
Not surprisingly, Gunn's script establishes a firm balance between action, horror and organic comedy -- bother Sean gets some of the biggest laughs as the corporation's resident stoner and conspiracy theorist, who leads his own little squadron of three for much of the film -- and he and McLean have assembled a such a strong, fan-friendly cast of familiar heavies (Michael Rooker! Tony Goldwyn! Gregg Henry! John C. McGinley!), lesser-knowns and newcomers to play this likable, believable group of office drones that they're able to smartly subvert expectations on a number of occasions.
The body count is extremely high -- most of them on screen -- and the blood and gore is plentiful and extremely well-crafted, but it wisely isn't lingered on and there's no off-putting, drawn-out torture scenes to speak of. Mind you, a few of the most audience-pleasing kills are exceptionally squishy, so I could see this eventually hitting DVD and streaming in R and unrated versions. The TIFF audience saw the unrated version for sure last night, so plenty of cheers all around when some of the most devious players met their makers.
This is a great "what would you do" kind of show, and I'd imagine a lot of genre fans will get a huge kick out of it.
On route to a pre-G8 summit meeting, the U.S. president's plane is
brought down by a seeming act of terrorism into the dense, mountainous
Finnish Lapland, played here by the German Alps much like Norway
substituted for Finland in writer-director Jalmari Helander's debut
feature RARE EXPORTS. Ejected to safety by his right-hand secret
service agent (Ray Stevenson) before the crash, the president (Samuel
L. Jackson) finds his only hope of escaping the mountains and forest is
a 13-year old boy (Onni Tommila, the star of RARE EXPORTS) undergoing
his first solo hunt as a rite-of-passage into manhood. The boy, we're
shown, doesn't share his father's legendary skill for huntinghis
talent with a bow and arrow tending to land shots well short of their
targetsbut when it becomes apparent that the president is being
stalked, MOST DANGEROUS GAME style, by a team of slick big game hunters
led by a Saudi psychopath (Mehmet Kurtulus) who has paid an exorbitant
sum of money for the privilege of stuffing and mounting his prize, the
duo must both learn that being tough is equally as crucial as looking
Meanwhile, back at Pentagon HQ bunker, the vice president (Victor Garber), his aide (Felicity Huffman), a top general (Ted Levine) and an intelligence expert (Jim Broadbent) pound their fists, actually shout lines like "Dear GOD!", order in Chinese take-out, analyze a wall of gigantic satellite monitors and generally deliver Helander's shallow, wholly-derivative and often groan-inducing dialogue with as much professional aplomb as they can muster. With actors like these, all of whom Helander was no doubt able to attract on the charming eccentricity of RARE EXPORTS, audiences bring a lot of subconscious baggage to the table when watching them on deliver mostly and unnecessarily expository dialogue, having seen them play countless similar roles over the years, in effect filling in the blanks left by the writer. Without them, or with lesser actors or, say, Finns playing Americans, the film wouldn't have gotten too deep into the festival circuit (where it's currently making the rounds as I write this), or even a DVD/stream release outside of Europe or the Nordic countries, as the primary selling features would be limited to its spectacular visuals, an epic score, and the unique flavour of the indigenous cast. There are plenty of Nordic movies like that already, and they're largely unknown in North America.
Speaking of blanks, there are some big ones in Big Game, including a clearer understanding of the conspiracy that's actually taking place. With straight-up terrorism ruled out very early in the show, and the Chinese-armed Mid-Eastern hunters revealed to be in league with an "inside man", it comes as no real surprise that the two halves of the storythe action in the forest and the hand-wringing at the pentagonwill reveal additional villainy afoot (predictably, that's exactly what happens). But when Kurtulus, at long last moving in for the kill on Jackson aboard a sunken Air Force One after much shooting of guns, detonating of explosives, pursuits by helicopters and, at one point, a perilous and logic-defying ride in an airborne-then-waterborne refrigerator (don't ask), suddenly announces that he's on actually on the president's side (!), but answers Jackson's query of how with an exhausted "It's a long story. Maybe later." before resuming his attempt to kill him, it only confirms that Helander hasn't really thought the story through beyond characters and dialogue he purloined from other, superior works. That this exchange is quickly followed by Jackson's trailer-ready, baddie-dispatching quip for the ages proves that Helander is more about hitting the right beats and deploying the expected clichés than shaping character or filling in story, or addressing potentially interesting political subtexts inherent in the situation he created.
Make no mistake. This is clearly an amped-up calling card to Hollywood in the wake of the goodwill engendered by his enjoyably quirky RARE EXPORTS. I doubt it will get much theatrical play outside major markets. It will probably do alright on DVD and streaming (the "home formats", as the pros will say), and its high gloss production value should surprise the unsuspecting renter and be enough to attach Helander and DP Mika Orasmaa to a bigger American or international production for their next show(s), which is clearly something they're aiming for based on the evidence assembled here.
BIG GAME is very well crafted on what was undoubtedly a small budget compared to its American antecedents, with Helander and Orasmaa backgrounding nearly every frame with majestic mountain scenery, big skies, craggy surfaces and lush forestation, and Juri and Miska Seppa's sweeping orchestral score matching those visuals on every level, almost to a fault. The film's plentiful digital effects, including the crash of Air Force One and a climactic confrontation in the sky between ejector seat-bound Jackson and Tommilla and a helicopter riding villain, are all seamlessly integrated even as they routinely defy physics or common sense. But these are beautiful visuals tethered to an undernourished B-movie screenplay. I suppose some will claim that's part of it's charm and it's certainly never boring as a result but that's just excusing the fact that Helander should've had someone with a better ear for English dialogue and a better understanding of how the more successful of the American action pictures and 1980's Spielberg productions he idolizes here actually work, perhaps by doing more technical research than just appropriating their surface gloss for inspiration.
Self-satisfied fluff about self-involved young people in love . . . or maybe not! Bouncy fashion plate Stephy Tang happily interferes in the frayed relationships of her friends, runs a speed dating swindle with another pal, and sorts out her feelings for old flame Alex Fong who she played on her way to a supposedly better catch before suffering a string of bad luck and new flame Hins Cheung, the youngest looking doctor in Hong Kong and (coincidentally, I'm sure) a whiz at melancholy melodies on the piano. Director-writer Patrick Kong is so taken with the narrative trickery in his screenplay that his characters end up being motivated by false assumptions and mixed signals instead of common sense. While these are legitimate storytelling devices, usually requiring flashbacks to clue us in to the "real" story taking place, Kong employs all of them so frequently that no other filmmaker need bother with them for the next five years. Besides, the Koreans have been doing it better for a while now. Essentially, this is another feature-length infomercial for the talent roster of Gold Label recording boss Paco Wong, but it can't compare to his last one, LOVE @ FIRST NOTE. Pretty people in pretty clothing stalking their lovers to a pretty good Cantopop soundtrack. Of course, only in a film like this could a character who pastes pictures of his secret crush onto pictures of himself before taping them all over his wall be considered a real sweet fella.
Product placement reaches staggering new heightsby all known
international standards of the practicein this
electronic-press-kit-with-a-plot masterminded by Hong Kong music
impresario Paco Wong, the head of Gold Label Records. The cast is a
virtual catalogue of top-shelf Gold Label talent, and no effort is
spared slowing a barely-there narrative for music-video-worthy
performances of their top hits throughout the film.
Cantopop lovers will obviously find much to savor hereand the music is excellent of its kindbut even those disinclined to one of Hong Kong's biggest exports should give this a spin; it's bound to be dissected by future marketing professors for its sheer media-savvy chutzpah. This isn't just about someone holding a can of Coca-Cola in their hands, though it does happen here. It's about the person holding the product actually BEING a product themselves!
The biggest beneficiary of this super-slick infomercial is undoubtedly relative newcomer Justin Lo, an American-born singer-songwriter with a powerhouse delivery not often heard from the ranks of Hong Kong's superficial pop dispensary. Lo plays a slacker composer living with his seamstress mom who fears he might be losing his life-long best friend Kary Ng, a pseudo-goth record shop clerk who lives with her guilt-ridden alcoholic father (Lam Suet), to wealthy shop customer Alex Fong, a shy, friendless singer who bemoans all the "money whores" in his life (including his parents!) while charging rare Barry Manilow and Fleetwood Mac LPs to his Visa Black Platinum card and driving around in his vintage Porsche 911. "Boarding school was my orphanage," he boo-hoos in order to make us think that maybe, just maybe, real-life pop stars aren't about the money after all.
The reverence for Cantonese pop music and the oh-so-genuinely-sensitive souls who perform it runs deep in this: nearly every time someone singsand it happens often, in trendy nightclubs, cramped apartments, community centers and pay-as-you-go recording studiosthere's inevitably a cut (or two, or three) to a listener on the verge of tears from the overwhelming wonderfulness of it all.
In keeping with the branding theme, Ng's former groupmates from Cookies make gratuitous appearances here as well: Stephy Tang and Theresa Fu play ditzy rivals who switch sides when nominal villain and rival singer Keith Lee treats Ng like dirt after she snubs his advances, and Miki Yeung quite literally hovers speechless around the margins of countless scenes because...well, they just HAD to get her in there somewhere!
In addition to the six songs performed by Justin Lo, three by Kary Ng, and one each by Alex Fong, Elisa Lim and Ping Pung (Kary's other pop band, consisting of Wong Tin-ho, Jerry Lee and Jan Lee, the latter pair younger brothers to the film's composer Mark Lui), those synergistic pixies at Gold Label made damned sure to include cuts by house titans Edmund Leung and Ronald Cheng (both of whom share hosting duties with Alex Fong on the hit starlet-bait TV show "Beautiful Cooking") and then cast Leo Koo, whose own career was revived by the company in 2003, in a key cameo role.
And the nine girls who pop up in those throwaway "bathroom" scenes? I smell another pre-fab idol group on the horizon...
One can only assume that music veteran George Lam, who is not on the Gold Label roster, was brought in for a cinematic passing of the torch to this new generation of candy- coated superstars.
Written, as such, by the director, who manages to slip in a shameless plug for his upcoming thriller FATAL CONTACT. Producer Herman Yau also served as the film's cinematographer, and it benefits immensely from his work.
Pseudo-gonzo horror-comedy isn't quite up to the bar set by last year's truly gonzo BIO- ZOMBIE, but does earn at least a couple of stripes for thinking outside the box in which Hong Kong genre outings have of late become increasingly confined. One the eve of its closureindeed, on the eve of the millenniumthe motley staff of an alluringly tattered old picture palace, tellingly located at 666 King's Road, must face off with a collection of delightfully, deliberately rinky-dink monsters unleashed by Satan (Francis Ng), who's grown tired of poor films and inattentive theatre owners and decides to put this little microcosm of oddballs to the test! Leading the charge, after dishy girlfriend Sherming Yiu is unpleasantly dispatched by the demon, is sheepish projectionist Simon Loui, jittery, goggle-eyed ticket vendor Wayne Lai (in a terrific performance) and sassy cop Pauline Suen. Meanwhile, chasing a turd monster (!) down the toilets in the upstairs washrooms are stoned rave punks Benny Chan, Angela Tong and Pinky Cheung. While allusions are frequently and rather obviously drawn to Lamberto Bava's DEMONS (1985) because of the locale and the trio of punks, the film's primary mainspring is very likely Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE (aka BRAINDEAD, 1992), from the emphatically saccharine romance between Simon and Sherming, to the squishy, rubbery, puppet-y quality of the shoestring special effects, to the blatant editing cheats that prolong some setpieces a bit beyond their sell-by date. To be sure, it's no DEAD ALIVE, but its makers have their hearts in the right place, and if their low-fi ingenuity won't stand up to careful appraisal, it isn't really meant to anyway: it's meant to wink at the audience along with the cast and crew, who clearly enjoyed being given free run of a theatre for a few days to craft something just a little bit...different.
Engrossing socio-realist triptych of stories exploring the anxieties
and intransigence of Hong Kong society through the eyes of a handful of
everyday citizens, including one who returns from the diaspora, during
both the buildup to the 1997 handover of the former British colony to
China and the Asian financial crisis that followed soon after, in part
the result of unbridled stock market and real estate speculation.
Lensed on digital video in the naturalistic Dogme 95 style championed
by Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg (among others
who followed) in films like THE CELEBRATION and THE IDIOTS (both 1998).
The movement's "rules" forbid the overlaying of music to artificially
shape emotion, so the ambient noise here includes vintage television
news broadcasts providing political context.
Upstanding pastor Tony Ho frets the loss of his small church, and the sense of community and belonging it represents, to bald-faced property speculators, while his wife (Ivy Ho), a pragmatic realtor, surreptitiously arranges to sell their apartment before emigrating to the U.S. Meanwhile, tabloid reporter Shawn Yu takes a shine to editor Crystal Lui, whose aloofness masks painful, unresolved memories of her time as a student during the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing. Finally, superficial, westernized playboy Duncan Lai (easily the film's most weakly-drawn character) returns to Hong Kong from San Francisco to be nearer to his bus driver father, the pair learning a great deal about their roots during a visit to a rustic quarter of the city of Chung Shan in Guangdong Province to arrange the affairs of a deceased great aunt.
In keeping with the Dogme manifesto, independent producer-director Vincent Chui, in an extremely promising feature-length debut after dabbling in short subjects, employs restless hand-held photography and fractious editing to accentuate themes of dislocation and unease in writer Patrick Kong's uniquely local stories: these are people facing uncertain futures and disappearing pasts, and the artless telling of their tales becomes a visual metaphor for the unsettling cosmopolitan zeitgeist of the period. Though a key event in the minds of all concerned, the moment of the handover itself is skillfully omitted for audiences who presumably know everything they need to know either from having lived through it or from having seen it openly referenced in the city's mainstream cinema for well over a decade, prior to and beyond 1997.
Other strategies from the Dogme playbookavailable light, existing locations, raw sound, unmannered performancescontribute to an at-once refreshing lack of artifice and melodrama rare even to independent Hong Kong cinema. Tony Ho, Crystal Lui and newcomer Ivy Ho are in top form here, backed by an able ensemble. Only Duncan Lai's character remains frustratingly enigmatic, probably not by design. Title comes from the bible, Matthew 19:22, for those so inclined.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
NOTE: slight spoiler in the second last paragraph, duly noted below.
I've always found Eli Roth's films to be mixed bags. GREEN INFERNO is by far his best picture, but as in most of his other films his limitations as a dialogue writer are foregrounded too often, albeit thankfully to nowhere near the extent they were in the RZA's execrable vanity project MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. His character development skills, however, show unexpected signs of refinement during his six year absence from the director's seat.
In particular, Roth's take on environmental activists -- all of the main characters in Green Inferno are self-serious, latte-drinking "save the rain forest" university types who infiltrate a clear-cutting operation deep in the Amazon jungle and chain themselves to the logging machinery in order to protest "corporate greed" via satellite linkup with their iPhones -- cuts effectively deep for a filmmaker not usually given to social criticism.
Most criticism that could be leveled at the film's dialogue and subtext, however, is irrelevant since the drawing card for horror buffs will without question be the exotic, "dangerous" location (which promises enough stories for multiple gory sequels, according to Roth), and the copious scenes of torture, dismemberment and cannibalism that ensue when the protagonists' plane -- possibly due to sabotage, it's later implied -- crashes into the forest on the return trip home (the opening protest mission is entirely self-contained, and actually successful, or so it seems at first). Enter the natives -- reportedly played by an authentic Chilean tribe, albeit one not prone to dining on human flesh -- and the feasting begins.
The grisly makeup effects are by a team led by legends Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger (who aren't credited at IMDb as of this writing, but ARE listed in the opening credits of the film), and they certainly deliver, particularly the squishy, screaming dismemberment that sets the ball rolling. As far as cannibal movies go, the special effects in GREEN INFERNO are certainly the most elaborate to date, but considering the most notable (and notorious) run of this genre happened thirty years ago, that probably goes without saying.
Manuel Riveiro's full orchestral lends the film an appropriately ominous sense of portent -- especially when it accompanies sweeping flyover shots of dense jungle -- and a feeling of scope and import that belies the fact that GREEN INFERNO is ultimately a throwback/valentine to the works of Ruggerio Deodato and Umberto Lenzi, almost to the letter, in particular Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX (aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY). Speaking of those two, Roth's film is actually dedicated to Deodato, and the credits list most if not all of the films in this sub-genre that one should probably see or at least be aware of going in or coming out. At TIFF, Roth claimed this list (along with numerous tweet handles in the final roll) was simply a great way to insert some marketing magic directly into the film itself, but one could also read it as a preemptive strike against critics (and fans) who might realize just how shamelessly he treads familiar ground with this show and attempt to dock points for it. Mind you, if enough future audience members haven't seen any of the late 70's or early 80's Italian cannibal pictures -- and let's face it, a whole new generation or two probably doesn't even know they exist -- that might bode well for this picture, especially via DVD/streaming, as there's nothing like experiencing a dedicated cannibal movie for the first time, and with a strong stomach. It's also now very likely that some of GREEN INFERNO's predecessors will get fancy new Blu-ray re-releases thanks to the existence of this film. So there's that.
As for gratuitous skin -- always a component of the originals -- Roth treats us to more of Daryl Sabara's junk than most viewers probably ever thought they'd care to see, for what that's worth, while for the likely-to-be-predominantly-male demographic of this type of picture, Loranna Izzo spends a fair portion of the final act bounding through the rain forest in a skimpy little muslin jungle bikini (and -- SPOILER AHEAD!! -- appears oh-so-briefly topless during her FGM "preparation" scene), while she and a couple of the other actresses have fleeting moments sans pants getting "examined" by the tribe's cataracted, jaundice-skinned resident witch doctor and gynecologist. Such as it is, the skin quotient -- when it's not being ripped and chopped apart, and cooked and eaten, at least -- is more or less on par with the original films. Thankfully Roth and company avoid scenes of animal cruelty (even faked) altogether, so those who uncomfortably recall such unpleasantness from the Deodato/Lenzi films can rest easy; it's only the humans who get eaten this time out.
Finally, a dangling subplot involving one character will undoubtedly serve as the foundation of the just-announced sequel, which reportedly begins production almost immediately. To be honest, I'd almost forgotten about this character until the drive home, which was probably the point all along.
Director Kang Woo-suk dresses up his diatribes about the social ills of modern Korea in the well- worn finery of the cop-vs-serial-killer thriller so beloved by Hollywood. Disheveled cop Sol Kyung-gu, unrepentantly violent and perpetually on the take--because, let's face it, that's just how thing's get done in Korea--relentlessly pursues a dapper, smarmy financial whiz (Lee Sung- jae, who he believes killed his parents over his father's decision to remove a large chunk of money from a big investment deal in order to save an orphanage from the bulldozers. There's no doubt Lee is guilty of the crime--we see the act in all it's squishy glory, and he further confounds the investigators by randomly killing a hapless stranger to make all the murders appear to be the work of a serial killer, but Sol knows better, and will use every dirty trick at his disposal to put this doggy down. The real target of director Kang's venomous social criticism is quite obviously the soulless corporate culture he seems convinced has poisoned Korean society and subverted traditional family values far more than corrupt law enforcement ever could, and which he views as a wellspring of self-obsessed Armani-clad sociopaths who would slit their own mothers' throats to score a big ROI, only here the metaphor isn't actually a metaphor, it's the central plot device! (I'm guessing he read "American Psycho" or at least saw the movie; certainly Lee's icy villain would make an ideal overseas pen-pal for Bret Easton Ellis' Patrick Bateman). As in TWO COPS 1 and 2, the director sides squarely with the overworked, underpaid cops, and he lovingly (and humorously) illustrates the complex, even necessary web of corruption and deception they must weave in order to maintain the status quo.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
That scene where C. Thomas Howell falls asleep in the police station and awakens to find dead cops? It's here. A villain who goads the hero into attempting to kill him? He's here. The love interest (in this case wife) who doesn't end up in a very nice way? She's here, too. And don't forget the vehicular carnage. Gotta have that if you're gonna remake Robert Harmon's THE HITCHER (1986). This thriller about a couple (Kim Ju-hyuk, Chu Sang-mi) menaced by a (mostly) motiveless psychopath (Park Joong-hoon) during a road trip to a small resort town owes a great deal of its existence to the superior American cult thriller. As such, it's very well made and hits the right shock and gore buttons even as it goes through the motions and director Kim Sung-hong adds almost no new ingredients outside of a somewhat difficult-to-swallow twist ending that doesn't really square with the the hero's character up to that point, but DOES suggests that both he and villain Park are just part of an ongoing cycle of senseless violence. Comedy and action-comedy mainstay Park fills Rutger Hauer's shoes with the same mix of sotto voce menace and unstoppable (and seemingly unkillable) force of nature, but he doesn't bother with the sparkle of bemusement in Hauer's eye that made his grim acts all the more hissable. Not sure the reason beyond the difficulties most Korean filmmakers have getting sophomore efforts off the ground in such a small and competitive market but director Kim didn't direct again until 2009's MISSING, a rather disappointing gap considering the potential demonstrated in this remake.
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