Donkey Punch

Donkey Punch (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Oliver Blackburn
viewed: 04/28/09

Only a notch or so above loathsome, Donkey Punch is a British thriller about a bunch of hot-bodied twenty-somethings partying in Majorca, Spain, as young Brits are known to do.  But on a yacht, amid ecstasy and crack and general orgy, one of the naive young men administers a “donkey punch” that kills his partner.  I’ll let you follow the Wikipedia entry for that definition, if you aren’t familiar with it.  I wasn’t.  Honest injun.

While this movie then moves into a sort of Dead Calm on the Mediterranean and nubile youngsters, the film’s biggest flaw is its lack of humanity or ability to develop any characters that one can care about.  It’s easy enough to see who the survivor will be, the “good” one, the “nice” girl.  But beyond that, it’s hard to fathom the reality of the situation.

Now, I say that, but it does ring of the truly loathsome story of Natalee Holloway, a teenager who disappeared while on holiday in Aruba, and though no one has been charged with the crime (not enough evidence apparently), it looks as though some wealthy Dutch guy and friends probably killed her and dumped her body.  This is only to say that there is a scenario where people do horrible things and could enlist friends to help.

However, the ever-heightening situation on the boat in Donkey Punch, seems false.  It takes characters that are middle class English men and women and suggests that a-morality and lack of conscience is the commonality rather than the anomaly.  I think, given a situation such as this, with people voicing oppositional thinking about the choices, that it would be hard for four guys and two girls to not decide to be honest and “do the right thing”.

While the movie is executed decently, it’s an unlikable thing at best.  And while I am projecting an aspect of morality against its characters, it’s not just that.  It’s a genre thriller that plays upon a Survivor-like mentality, which means that it really does play upon the reality or believability of the characters as creatures of moral judgment and responsibility.  For one to believe that they can discard these characteristics because of self-interest, you have to make the whole thing a bit more real.

While it’s not the worst film you could ever see, it’s really something that I recommend avoiding.  It’s lame and a bit disheartening.  And not clever at all.

Fellini: I’m a Born Liar

Fellini: I'm a Born Liar (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Damian Pettigrew
viewed: 04/27/09

I think I queued this film, a documentary about famed filmmaker Federico Fellini, to gain some perspective on his work, since I have felt somewhat unmoved by his films, also finding myself looking for a toehold to get into them.  This documentary came out in 2002, and I remembered it (it’s probably been in my queue all that time), that it had been well-received.

But one of those interesting happenstances happened.  Having just watched Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), I was struck by an interesting parallel.  Synecdoche, New York is about a playwright and director whose life melds into his work, his construct of the world becomes more real than the outer world.  It’s a film about life and death but very much the creative process and the somewhat psychoanalytic therapy of directing work of one’s creation, of one’s life.  And this is because this is very much the discussion and dialogue with Fellini in I’m a Born Liar.

Fellini is a real old man in his interviews, not the made up old man played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Kaufman’s film.  Fellini is looking back on his process, his career, his philosophy.  Fellini’s successes and recognition perhaps freed him from the self-loathing that reeks from Kaufman’s character.  Fellini is full of contradictions, issues, but also worked this issue out quite literally himself in one of his most famous films, 8 1/2 (1963).  And I’m a Born Liar uses imagery from that film more than from any other of Fellini’s works.  It would be an interesting double feature, those two films, self-reflective, obsessed with the process of creativity and life.

Of course, the benefit of genuine hindsight is that Fellini cheerfully discusses his work and process, his philosophies.  And while we have some outside perspectives of the man and his process from people who worked with him, actors, art directors, cinematographers, friends, and we learn the contradictions therein.  Fellini is aware of the oxymorons and contradictions to an extent.  But again, this is where the parallel between these films becomes most profound.  Fellini notes that his construct of his hometown, one that he built in film and in his mind, is more real to him than the “actual” reality of the physical town.  Much like Hoffman’s re-build of Schenectady, New York, a personal microcosm within a microcosm, with actors who “play” the director.  In Fellini’s case, it’s Marcello Mastroianni who fulfilled this in his films, his cinematic  counterpart, rather than the endless streams of actors who fulfill Hoffman’s ever more complex universe.

Director Damian Pettigrew has a simple, elegant approach to the documentary, utilizing interview footage of Fellini still vibrant but only a year or so before his death in 1993, mixed with reflections of others, segments and images from his films, and tellingly, images of the present day locations of Fellini’s famous films, showing the change or lack of change, the “real” world which Fellini has come to deny, more fixated on his own version of events, place, the world.

I’m also a little more struck by the fact that Fellini went from realist to fantasist in his work based on experimentation with LSD.  That is a bit of a guess and simplification, but it seems quite possible.  Influential nonetheless.

It’s a good documentary, not utterly straightforward, but quite a discourse on art, creation, imagination and the cinematic experience.  I’ll have to see what will be next in the Fellini films that I watch.  There are a few out there on my queue.  I’ll have to move one or two up.

Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Charlie Kaufman
viewed: 04/26/09

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman came to be known as one of the most innovative and challenging screenwriters working in Hollywood since the first of his scripts was produced into Being John Malkovich (1999).  Other films produced from his screenplays include Human Nature (2001), directed by Michel Gondry, Adaptation (2002), directed by Spike Jonze who had also directed Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) mishandled by George Clooney, and perhaps most successfully, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which Michel Gondry also directed.  Somewhere along the lines, Kaufman must have decided that if Clooney could do it, it couldn’t be that hard to direct a film himself.  And Synecdoche, New York is his first film as writer/director.

The thing about Kaufman, for my money, is that he is indeed inventive, disruptive, imaginative, and interesting, in ways that no one else working in Hollywood’s mainstream is.  Synecdoche, New York is a “mind fuck” as many of his narratives wind up being.  In this case, we have a self-loathing theater director and playwright, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, as his world devolves and his health frightens him, he decides to create a play that is about everything in his life.  With the help of a grant, he rents an enormous warehouse and rebuilds Schenectady, New York, the town in which his characters initially resided.  He then hires and populates his microcosm with actors playing the characters of his life, eventually replacing himself.  As life unfolds, he is recreating it, analyzing it, replaying it, reconstructing it, an ever-increasingly interior version of his world, to the point it becomes like a visual, emotional echo chamber or hall of mirrors.

Kaufman works the absurd in clever, self-conscious ways, with the aging Hoffman, following the character of himself through the set of his play, critiquing his own direction and critique.  The multiples of occurence fold over on themselves to the point that it’s hard to tell what has really happened from what is only reconnoitered in his interpretations.  What I’d read about this film was that critics had admired the fact that Kaufman is dealing with “big” issues: life, death, creativity, loneliness, addressing more solemn and significant themes than one sees in an entire year’s worth of Hollywood films.  Perhaps this is a more European consideration (or perceived to be).  But with Kaufman’s black comedy and self-loathing.

Self-loathing is exactly what has troubled me about Kaufman’s films.  When I first saw Being John Malkovich, which has the wonderful absurdities of the half-floor on the building to the portal into the human body of John Malkovich, I came to quickly realize that his characters are all not just self-loathing, but loathsome.  There is a misanthropy that is so palpable that you come away from his films just feeling kind of sick about humanity, not hopeful, not chuckling at the humor therein.  And this is totally valid and I appreciate it as such.  It’s just it makes you feel unhappy and ill.  And that is kind of the intent.  As clever and interesting his work, it simply isn’t made to entertain and make you smile.  It’s almost intentionally nauseating, nauseating the spirit.

And I have to say, for my money, I don’t “look forward to” his films, though I am drawn to them for their intelligence and innovation.  But sort of knowing that it will leave me feeling sick to myself and unhappy.  Again, I think this is all valid, but I guess this is why when someone gave me the DVD of Being John Malkovich, since I had ended up seeing in twice in the theater by happenstance, that I never watched it again.  It’s clever and bizarre, but upsetting and no fun.

As a director, I can’t fault Kaufman.  He certainly did better than Clooney did with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.  I thought that occasional sequences were paced too quickly in editing and occasional dissonances therein brought my mind to that place, but overall it’s a very competent first film in that sense.  The dark, drabness is depressing.  And I think he managed to achieve his intent.

Lastly, I want to note that Synecdoche, New York is a pun.  It’s not Schenectady, New York, though it’s a virtual homynym.  The meaning that I read was interesting.  Click synecdoche for dictionary.com’s reference.  It’s evident that Kaufman has a layered construct here, deeper and more to it than one glance through.  I’d tell him to “lighten up” but he does what he does and he does it well.  More power to him.  May he make more and more interesting films.

Clash of the Titans

Clash of the Titans (1981) movie poster

(1981) dir. Desmond Davis
viewed: 04/24/09

The kids and I have watched a number of the films of Ray Harryhausen.  In many ways, though Harryhausen only ever did the special effects (the stop-motion animated monsters and creatures), and while he worked with a number of different “directors”, those films are his more than anyone else’s, far more the core of the enjoyment and magic of the films.  And for those in the know, Clash of the Titans was the last film on which he worked.

Released in 1981, the film I remember quite well from its initial run.  I’d been a Harryhausen fan as a kid, tipped off on “who he was” by Famous Monsters of Filmland, but a long-time fan of his Sinbad films ( The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) & Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)) and his masterpiece, Jason and the Argonauts (1963).  But Clash of the Titans was a bit of a let-down, over-long, clunky, and though featuring some excellent sequences, felt very behind the times in comparison with Star Wars and the modern special effects.

The reality is that the film is clunky.  Harry Hamlin as Perseus isn’t exactly “star power”.  But the film has a pretty rich cast of actors including Laurence Olivier as Zeus, Maggie Smith as Theta, plus Burgess Meredith, Usula Andress, and Claire Bloom, to boot.  And some of the effects are more clunky.

The film’s best sequence is the slaying of Medusa, which is one of the best of Harryhausen’s work.  She’s wonderfully designed and manipulated.  There are some others, Bubo the R2D2-sounding robot owl, the Kraken (looks cool but doesn’t do a whole lot), the 2-headed dog, a couple of scorpions.  I always found it a dissapointing finale to a great career.  And that’s pretty much how I saw it this time with the kids.

Clara wasn’t into it at all.  But Felix liked it.  He was interested in the depiction of the mythological characters of whom he has read in a Mythology book, which he kept on his lap during the film.

The funny thing was, the very day we watched it, there was an article in the local paper The San Francisco Chronicle, listing 5 great bad movies (that are so bad that they’re good), such as Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and the new cult film The Room (2003).  I think that’s going a bit too far for Clash of the Titans because it’s not that bad.

Additionally, I had just read that they had signed Liam Neesan and Ralph Fiennes to play Zeus and Hades, respectively, in a new re-make due out next year.  It’s not utterly surprising, but here is a chance to make a better movie, for certain, with effects out of the computer with no doubt many a tip of the hat to Harryhausen, a pioneer of special effects.  But the wonderfully anachronistic use of stop-motion animation to depict the real surreal is something that should still be appreciated, an art form somewhat easily dismissed as passe in today’s day and age, but something that had great qualities and craft in the hands of Ray Harryhausen, a master of the form.

Still, this is not the one to start with nor finish with of his films.  I doubt anyone would disagree with that suggestion.

The Spirit

The Spirit (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Frank Miller
viewed: 04/18/09

Adapted from a greatly respected and appreciated, though perhaps out of hardcore comic book circles less known, comic by Will Eisner, The Spirit is the latest “old” comic book character to get resurrected.  And in this case, he’s resurrected by writer/director Frank Miller, a comic book artist/writer turned Hollywood with his collaboration in 2005’s Sin City.  Apparently, influenced by that film and another filmic adaptation of one of his own comic books, 300 (2006), Miller takes his cinematic aesthetic and heightens it into visual pop art, with nothing remotely natural-looking ever appearing onscreen.

In some ways, the design approach is also like the French animated noir film Renaissance (2006), though that film was more literally animated.  But for my money, this approach is risky.  The Spirit suffers from some of the same issues of Dick Tracy (1990).  How to approach cinematically work that is both very much originally pen and ink and colors, trying to maintain an aesthetic, while also working with some really dated figures and trying to an extent to make them modern and palpable.  And how much of this is intentionally funny and how much is just so uber-arch that it’s almost more an outright comedy than adventure or action film.

Nobody chews scenery these days with more vigor and joy than Samuel L. Jackson.  He seems to well-prefer the opportunities to ham it up a la Snakes on a Plane (2006) than to try for anything of true seriousness.  And he likes to wear crazy outfits and funny hairdos.  As the villain The Octopus, he’s perhaps got his most lustrous role yet.  He’s a complete cartoon, and a pretty intimidating one, except for the outright comedy.

Jackson is not the only one in high camp.  Scarlett Johansson, as his sexy assistant only has a comic role.  Well, maybe the whole thing is simply a comedy, I don’t know.  It’s marketing tried to make it look like it would be the next Sin City, though there are two sequels to that film in production already.  Perhaps it is marketing around the art design.  The art design looks cool.  But the film inside of it is just a scrambling pile of weirdness and inanity.

When these more tradtional comic book heroes make it to the big screen, they have a lot to get over with the audience who probably isn’t overly familiar with them anymore.  The Spirit is a cult comic.  And like Dick Tracy, The Phantom (1996), and The Shadow (1994), none of these films could make their characters germaine to the world at hand.  And it’s not the source material to blame.  While The Phantom and The Shadow both tried to just make a modern live-action action film, Dick Tracy was prototypical to the overdone aesthetics.  The whole thing feels false.

Why Sin City worked where The Spirit doesn’t…I don’t know.  The Spirit is disspiriting, hollow, too clever while never clever, amateurish slop.  And a whole battalion of green screens and an army of designers and computer effects specialists can’t make a stark, noirish silk purse out of the garble of junk.

 

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Scott Derrickson
viewed: 04/18/09

In re-making a classic film, which is happening more and more all the time these days, from an artistic standpoint, you start out partially screwed.  You’re down a notch from originality and you’re down a notch because it’s rare that original films really have a need to be remade.  So, you start out below water with expectations, and you have to find a way to do something to justify yourself.

Now, that’s the opinion of someone familiar with the original, classic Robert Wise-directed 1951 science fiction film, The Day the Earth Stood Still.  I’m sure that while picthing it, they’re realizing that there are a lot of people out there who’d never seen nor heard of the original, in these myopic times.  And don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think it’s heresy or anything so extreme as some hard-core film cultists might.  I just think it’s grossly unoriginal and uninspired.

But to re-think The Day the Earth Stood Still, a 1950’s Cold War film about a far more advanced alien force that comes to destroy humanity to save more life (because humans are violent and increasing their technological power to destroy without knowing what they are doing), for the modern times is to re-think what humans are fucking up the most these days.

For the 21st Century, it’s no longer untapped scientific development of weaponry, but it’s the way that we’re mucking up the inhabitability of the planet on which we live.  And while that is most undoubtably true, it gets more and more tedious getting told that in science fiction films over and over again.

This time, our alien/Christ-figure is Keanu Reeves (whose real name isn’t all that far from his character Klaatu, if you think about it).  Reeves, with his stony, unearthly acting and his sci-fi Christ figure street cred from The Matrix film series, seems as apt a choice as you’d have.  It’s like turning Arnold Schwarzenegger into a robot.  It sort of fits his performance.

But of course, our heroine is no longer a mere widowed mother in a boarding house, epitomizing American ideals of the 1950’s, but she’s a super-scientist.  And the world isn’t 1950’s America, rather it’s already a polyglot culture.  The team of scientists are a global village, including a Muslim.  And Jennifer Connelly has an adopted son who is African American.  See, it’s no longer about race or nationality.  It’s about us and the Earth.

And about special effects and IMAX-worthy special effects.  I noted when watching the original recently that it was a very humanistic film, and despite having Gort the 8′ robot and the flying saucer, the film focused on human interactions, to display the qualities and possibilities of humanity to Klaatu, to give him pause to save us from destruction.  But now Gort is like 800′ tall and lots of stuff gets, well, not “blowed up” but devoured by robotic flies.  Visual spectacle.

The film fails to really communicate the emotion or the justification of the species by comparison.  I mean, when Klaatu finally relents and sees the milk of human kindness between a woman and her adopted son, it’s not sincere really.  I wasn’t convinced.  It’s a good thing I’m not Klaatu.

Additonally, director Scott Derrickson makes this all Biblical-ish.  Klaatu is collecting species prior to Earth’s devastation a la Noah and his ark.  We have doom in a swarm of flies (not locusts, but flies).  And Klaatu even walks on water at one point.   All this religious innuendo seems more handy than specifically imbued with a message.  Is it “God” that comes to destroy us so to save the rest of the world?  Isn’t it only us that can save ourselves?  Should we all go out and buy a Prius after watching this movie?

The film is disappointing, assuming that you had given it enough hope to still have something to have been disappointed with.  And it’s kinda bad, too.  But it’s not as out and out awful as other films.  It feels sort of dumb by comparison.  This whole approach to alien communication (do they really think landing in Central Park is going to get them a meeting at the United Nations?  Don’t they know us well enough to know how people will act?  And why can’t they offer us help rather than destruction?)  All in all, it could be done a lot better.

Sputnik Mania

Sputnik Mania (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. David Hoffman
viewed: 04/17/09

This is a pretty disappointing documentary about the effect that the launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite had on America and the world, spurring on both the Space Race and the Arms Race.  It’s Cold War material, typically interesting to me, tying in with several other documentaries made about similar times and events.  But this one is a mish-mash and a mess.   Cutting lots of old footage, but a few modern interviews, and some voice-over clarifications, the film attempts to show the reactions.  But really, one has to work to discern the issues.

It’s not that a documentary has to spell out its intent or to push heavily for an interpretation of events, but this film just fails to do much of anything, even to keep it interesting, even though it inherently is.

I wish it had been better, but it does go to show that some material cannot save itself against bad filmmaking.

Splinter

Splinter (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Toby Wilkins
viewed: 04/14/09

In horror films since 28 Days Later… (2002) (and before to an extent), diseases have evolved into super-diseases, running rampant, taking ebola and rabies to new heights (also recently noted: Quarantine (2008)).  Well, it makes sense, super diseases are scary and their effects of turning people into crazed zombie murderers have taken the genre through its latest fluctuations.

Molds are dangerous, right?  What about super-monster-molds?

Splinter, a horror film set at an isolated small town gas station, raises that question.  Not that the trailer actually tells you what the beastie is, simply showing its spiny splinters quivering and people getting infected.  But as the story goes, this spore system, which moves like the radical super-powered blood-thirsty infectees of the previously mentioned films, but the way it works is that in animates the corpses but in a bizzare, bone-breaking, gory fashion, flopping heat-seeking, and yes, thirsting for blood.

It’s kinda silly, but you know it could be scary.  Kinda like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), a morphing, killer organism.  Of course, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is a top notch genre film.  Splinter is much less in all of the areas that make this genre interesting.  The script is pretty simple and characters pretty straightforward: horny college-educated young campers and white trash carjacking abductors.  While sticking to genre conventions can work, I think the film’s weakness is in the script, the direction and editing, and perhaps in the special effects.

The script is on the verge of silliness.  The creature (if it is a creature) doesn’t think, just lusts for blood and is attracted to anything above the 92 Farenheit temperature (?).  This spurs the victims to come up with a plan to ice down the college boy so that he’s so cold that the creature cannot detect him.  And the characters while they don’t say too many things that are laugh-out-loud funny, they’re just playing the roles like some community college production.

As for the editing and FX.  The “splinters” that quiver are part of the appealing effects, but either due to the limitations of the effects or just really bad filmmaking, much of the action is so confusing that you’re not really sure what is supposed to be happening.  When the white trash girl gets killed, it’s sort of unclear what has happened.  It’s sloppy.  In fact, the editing was even bothering me during the credit sequence, going back and forth between the first encounter with the creature and the first bloody death.  Oddly enough, I thought this scene had potential.  Because at this point, you don’t know what “splinter” is, and when it first gets the guy, it could be some mutated porcupine.  Now, that may sound even sillier than killer mold (or not), but I was intrigued.

Really, it’s a pretty weak film, almost really bad, but just not quite.

Maybe the sequel will be better.

(I’m joking).

Le million

Le million (1931) movie poster

(1931) dir. René Clair
viewed: 04/13/09

I have often noted that no one has seen “all” of the important, interesting films, is familiar with “all” of the significant auteurs or directors, no matter how lonely and locked up with a VCR or DVD player they could be.  But, as I am apparently aspiring to such a thing, I am frequently delving into the works of directors of note whose films I had never before seen.  The latest case in point: writer/director René Clair and his 1931 film, Le million.

Described as an influential Screwball comedy, I was thinking Howard Hawks or something coming into it.  It’s a very different animal than a film like His Girl Friday (1940), not nearly so verbal and dialogue-driven.  In fact, the film is one of Clair’s first sound films, and Clair was one of the critics of the development of sound for cinema, saying that it would ruin the art form that had been developing so beautifully.  But interestingly enough, Clair employs sound very inventively throughout, even omitting it in essence in certain sequences that are far more motion-based (chases, processions, and the like).

The film is actually in some ways a musical.  Perhaps not in the grandest sense, with key songs and so forth, but in the tradition of theater and a chorus.  The film is very theatrical while still being very cinematic, which is often a tough line, in my opinion, to navigate.  But much of the action is set in a theater, on a theater stage, and so the theatricality makes sense.  Despite the music that offers that side of things, the film is very visual, with interesting camera movement, complex usage of space and sets, and something quite unique.

The story is of a man who has a lot of debtors knocking at his door and a winning lottery ticket for a million Dutch florins lost in a jacket pocket that keeps moving from place to place, creating a cavalcade of seekers.  And the man is a bit of a philanderer, but perhaps in that French way that isn’t considered to be all that damning.

Actually, the romantic sequence is quite nice.  The poor artist and his girl hide behind the stage set, while the singers in the front spell out their unspoken words in their operatic performance.  It’s Clair using sound as a counter-point to the silence of the two others.  It’s quite clever.

The film is lively and quite fun.  But frankly it didn’t really engage me the way one might hope.  I did appreciate it and perhaps could appreciate it more with further consideration, but while it was a good time, it wasn’t for me as spectacular as it is perhaps in context of its time and production.  Take that for what you will.  I did.

Brute Force

Brute Force (1947) movie poster

(1947) dir. Jules Dassin
viewed: 04/12/09

Why it took me so long to discover director Jules Dassin, I’ll have to clock up to circumstance.  But after seeing his influential caper film, Rififi (1955), I’ve queued up his other works, which actually had already been in my Netflix queue.  I just queued them higher.  I think I rented Brute Force first because it was the earliest of his films in my queue.

Brute Force is considered a film noir but is a prison film, not the most typical of settings for noir, but not an inapt one.  Starring Burt Lancaster as the leader of the inmates, it follows the brutality of the prison system on the prisoners, especially as meted out by sadist Hume Cronyn, the leader of the guards.  And while the actual warden is a man of liberal leanings, one who prefers reform to brutality, the failure of the system and growing anatagonism leads to a very violent prisonbreak, quite shocking even today, much less at the time of the film’s production in 1947.

The film depicts the criminals as nobles, largely, none of whose back-story shows them to be anything other than would-be good-guys caught in wrong situations or at least somewhat emotionally understandable situations that lead them to prison.  Some of the situations and narrative tropes are just straight-up genre functions, which are the film’s weakest moments.  But Dassin’s cast is stellar, through and through, with all interesting faces, tough guys who are characters, and a knack for the action and violence that acts out the world of the prison.

Prison films aren’t a particular favorite of mine, but there is an interesting interview on this DVD with a film scholar who specializes in the genre and offers some good context for reading this film and considering others.  Lancaster is rock solid, with his pained expressions, you can read the bleakness right from his eyes.  And also, there is a tiny cameo by the stunning Ella Raines.

A solid and interesting film, not my favorite, but certainly calls for further viewing of Dassin’s oeuvre.