Saturday, June 26, 2010

Capsule Review: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

The first film featuring the fiery combination of director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, the pair's often strained relationship would go on to produce several masterpieces before Kinski's death in 1991. These films were notable not only for the behind-the-scenes drama, but also for how the difficulties presented in the films were reflected by the difficulties in making them. Filmed in the Peruvian rainforest, Herzog's attempts to tell of a group of conquistadores search for the lost city of gold often looks quite dangerous, particularly the scenes taking place on trecherous looking rapids. However, despite the troubles the result is often absolutely amazing. Kinski creates one of cinema's most enduring and memorable villains, and gets one of the all time great scenes on an empty raft, surrounded by monkeys.

Capsule Review: Hero (2002)

An astoundingly beautiful but thematically troubling wuxia film, Zhang Yimou's Hero was recieved well in North America after the release of the similarly epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. However, while that film preached about the tragic results of seeking revenge, Hero takes a much more forgiving view of totalitarian leadership and the use of extraordinary measures for the (percieved) benefit of all. While the central message remains controversial, one cannot fault the amazing cinematography (from Christopher Doyle) or the frequently impressive fight scenes featuring Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang. The plot takes the form of a fable or folk legend, but takes some interesting turns before the end. Highly entertaining, though it feels oddly neutered.

Monday, June 21, 2010

[.REC] 2 (2009)

It's been over a year since my review of [REC], and I have to admit that I was completely stoked when I heard that the sequel premiered at last year’s Venice International Film Festival.

Let's face it. Hollywood has had quite the draught when it comes to good horror movies, and I have steadily come to rely on Europe and Asia for my daily requirement of monsters and evil.

I hoped that Balagueró and Plaza would come through with another winner and for the most part, they did. However I'd be lying if I told you that things were as fun this time around as they were in 2007

The action in [REC]2 picks up immediately after the first film. Balagueró and Plaza chose to keep the "camera is the window for the audience" gimmick from the first movie, but have implemented it a bit more cleverly this time around.

Instead of one camera vantage point, the audience sees everything from the tactical cameras mounted onto the helmets of a Grupo Especial de Operaciones task force sent in to accompany a Ministry of Health official investigating the macabre events concerning a mysterious outbreak of an unknown virus in the apartment complex in Barcelona.

In true Shaw Brothers fashion, Balagueró and Plaza spill the plotline fairly early so that the bleeding and dying portion of your feature film can begin in earnest. The task force quickly discovers that the "official" is actually a high ranking official working for the Vatican and that the "infected" are not infected.

They are the playthings of a demonic force.

As if this weren't bad enough, the father of the iconic little girl zombie from the first movie shows up and manages to sneak into the building with the help of three of the most annoying teenagers in all of moviedom.

Couple that with the most unlikely cameo you could ever think of (which sadly telegraphs the ending of the movie) and you have a pretty entertaining way to burn off about ninety minutes.

While I enjoyed the plot progression of this movie and honestly believe that it is one of the stronger horror sequels ever made, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed.

The confirmation that the force at work is indeed a demon sorta kills the novelty of the first film. I love the "bait and switch" concept of Night of the Living Dead vs. The Exorcist that [REC] introduced. It really does buck the trend of the umpteen zombie virus movies that horror vets have watched since the seventies, and it was a concept that really flew over the heads of the people that made Quarantine, the film that we Americans got instead of [REC].

Quarantine lost the chance to differentiate itself from Zack Snyder's Dead retreads or the 28 Days Later films when it abandoned the supernatural angle and it became just another zombie virus movie trying to do things that other zombie virus movies did much better.

The rubber stamping of the diabolical is somewhat offputting, but you have to believe that Balagueró and Plaza had to pull the trigger on this sooner or later. If they didn't, they'd run the risk of their vision blending into the background of a zombie horror film niche whose entries are as numerous as the legions of undead we see on the screen.

The fairly short runtime worked to the advantage of [REC] but it doesn't really do as much justice for the sequel. The ideas for the last few segments of the film in which we find out that a shadowy gateway to the netherworld is forming in the attic of the building are dumped right in your lap without a lot of explanation and the previous cameo I mentioned pretty much tells you in advance what is going to happen.

I think that perhaps another fifteen minutes of runtime would've made all the difference in the world and while I still appreciate Balagueró and Plaza's determination to do more with less, the closing moments of [REC]2 probably would've been even more memorable if there had been more money in the budget for a decent visual effects guy.

Overall, I like this movie quite a bit but if things continue to progress on their current course and the final[REC] film follows through with its threat spill out of its current set piece in a tidal wave of blood and nightmares, then it is going to need a slightly larger runtime and a much larger budget in order to conclude the series in a satisfying manner.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Elite Squad (2007)


“The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”
- Stanley Milgram (1974)
American Social Psychologist


According to Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a commanding officer in BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais - Portuguese for Special Police Operations Battalion), in 1997 there were over 700 favelas, or slums, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Each slum is run by gang, and each of these gangs sell drugs. Your average cop--underpaid, and with everything to lose--has little reason to risk life and limb entering the unfamiliar, labyrinthine slums, and facing God knows what kind of resistance. And so there’s BOPE, an elite special forces unit with experience in urban warfare, advanced weaponry, and little respect for civil liberties or the law. Their logo is two pistols crossed behind a skull, which has a knife sticking through it. The message is clear: these dudes are bigger bad-asses than the drug dealers.

The actual narrative of the film is fairly simple: Captain Nascimento wants to leave the squad; he’s been doing it for a long time, and his wife is expecting their first child. His problem is that he can’t leave his men in the lurch, and so he’s determined to find an adequate replacement, someone who can lead his men into battle, and someone who can be as deadly and ruthless as himself. Two of the few honest cops in Rio present themselves as possibilities: André Matias (André Ramiro), an intellectual cop who lives a double life as a law student, and Neto (Caio Junqueira), a more direct, hard-nosed cop who is in charge of the police vehicle pool. The film follows Matias and Neto as the go from regular cops to BOPE recruits, delving deeper and deeper into the world of drugs and poverty, and into the chauvinistic and authoritarian world of the Elite Squad.


Director José Padilha’s (BUS 174) film is less a standard crime film, a simple case of cops and robbers, and more an investigation of the system. I might as well capitalize it: The System. I was recently listening to David Simon’s commentary on the first episode of HBO’s “The Wire,” and he explained that the show wasn’t really about cops; it was about how individuals are always compromised by institutions, whether that institution be a criminal one or a legitimate one. That comment works equally well for ELITE SQUAD, where the stresses of The System are always apparent, and where everyone is just as much a victim as they are a villain.

The quotation I put at the start of this review comes right from the start of the film. Many viewers, who (rightfully) see BOPE as a fascist police force, may read this quotation as an excuse for the Nascimento’s actions. He is, after all, completely ruthless: his men shoot gang members, often only children, on sight, and engage in torture and raids that are clearly illegal. The quotation, from the psychologist Stanley Milgram, could be seen to pardon his authoritarian behaviour. A closer reading, though, might show that the quotation applies to everyone in the movie. Confronted with overwhelming opposition and an incompetent police force, Nascimento (and BOPE in general) cannot help but react as they do. And the gang members, surrounded with such entrenched and systemic poverty, cannot help but turn to a life of crime, as one of the only ways towards empowerment. And the regular police, faced with low wages and the constant threat of the gangs, cannot help but turn a blind eye, and perhaps find other (illegal) ways to pay the bills. It’s not the character of the people in the situation, but the situation itself, as Milgram seems to be saying.


Milgram’s quote has a little extra significance, when you realize that he’s the researcher behind the “Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures,” the infamous experiment which “measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.” This is the experiment where (in brief) the subject was led to believe that he was dispensing massive electric shocks to another participant (actually an actor) every time that participant answered a question incorrectly. The experimenter was present, and his role was to keep telling the subject that the shocks were necessary, that he had to keep administering them. “In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment's final massive 450-volt shock.” The implication (one which has been critiqued at length, I believe) is that people respond to authority figures, even if there’s no real reason to do so, and even if it means harming others.

So, who is an authority figure, in ELITE SQUAD? Everyone and no one, it seems. The members of BOPE are both the experimenters, in this parallel, and the subjects, who are willing to harm others simply because they’re told that they must. But at least this much is clear: in extreme situations, people do extreme things, regardless of their character.


Wagner Moura has been rightfully applauded for his performance as Captain Nascimento. Moura portrays a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and as his stress level increases, so does his ruthlessness. You can see the stress of going into the favelas getting to him; in one late-night raid, his hand visibly shakes, and he looks on the edge of puking. And the only way for him to get past these physical manifestations of his stress (and perhaps his conscience) is to act out violently. He might be a monster, but he’s a monster for a reason, because of the situation he’s been put into. It doesn’t excuse his actions, but it certainly explains them.

ELITE SQUAD can be seen as a nice companion piece to CITY OF GOD, Brazil’s most famous film of the last decade. Like this more well known film, ELITE SQUAD takes the viewer into the poverty-stricken favelas, and shows how hard it can be just to live another day. I’d hate to think that anyone reading my review would get the impression that I approve of BOPE and their tactics; on the contrary, I think what this film does so well is show that it’s incredibly hard to judge anyone involved--be they Elite Squad, dirty cops, or gang members--without understanding the situation they live in.

Plus, it makes me happy to be living in Canada.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Big Money Hustlas (2000)

It's possible that I may have been predisposed to dislike Big Money Hustlas, the 2000 tribute to 1970s exploitation films created and starring rap group the Insane Clown Posse. It's not solely because of the quality of their juvenile, often offensively inane music - including the recent internet sensation "Miracles", which attained cult-like status solely because of its misguided awfulness. It's not because of their "infomercial" for their 2009 "Gathering Of The Juggalos" event which my wife became semi-obsessed with, watching it repeatedly in disbelief that such an odd collection of rather pathetic individuals could come together in some sort of profane Lollapalooza. It's not because of the absolutely ridiculous subculture of ICP fandom - known as Juggalos - who represent some of the saddest dredges of humanity. It's not because of faygo. Or neden-holes. Or Shangri-la.

It's because somewhere - deep down - I can see a teenage version of myself possibly digging some of what makes up the Juggalo (and *sigh* Juggalette) lifestyle. It combines carnivals, sugary soft drinks, raunchy content and a love for "extreme" pro-wrestling and trashy horror movies that would have really appealed to a 14 year old version of me. However, I can't imagine even the impressionable youth I once was taking this stuff very seriously, and certainly I would have grown out of this fandom before I reached anything approaching the age of reason. And I would be embarrassed that I ever enjoyed any of this, and do my best not to mention it ever again. But with time and emotional distance perhaps I could return to the Insane Clown Posse, and view the whole awful business with a certain amount of nostalgia.

Or perhaps not.

So, anyway. I don't like the Insane Clown Posse, or their fans, or their music. But - and this is a big butt - I actually had some hopes for Big Money Hustlas going into it. I can get behind a comical tribute to exploitation films. It has an appearance by the late Rudy Ray Moore reprising his classic Dolemite persona from Dolemite and The Human Tornado. And the ICP have shown a willingness in the past to not take themselves too seriously (obviously not counting that "Miracles" video). So, this could at least have its moments, right?


Shaggy 2 Dope has the lead as Sugar Bear, a hero cop from San Francisco whodresses in 70s gear and talks - irritatingly - in rhyme. He's brought to New York City to stop the crime spree of Big Baby Sweets (Violent J), who - along with his cronies - is flooding the streets with drugs, bootleg merchandise and prostitution. Oh, and as he'll remind us dozens of times throughout, he's also interested in getting his "motherfucking money". Sugar Bear teams up with the timid Officer Harry Cox (Harland Williams), and soon he's taking a notch out of Sweet's profits. But after a failed attempt to bring the criminals in, his obese stripper girlfriend Missy becomes a target. It takes the power of Dolemite to finally motivate Sugar Bear to take on Sweets in a fight to the death.

There's very little to interest or amuse even the most desperate fan of genre films in Big Money Hustlas. It's painfully slow, consistently irritating, and does almost nothing with the meager resources it has. It looks bad, sounds bad, and features piss-poor actors spitting out horrendous dialogue. The whole things feels like a particularly lame Mad TV sketch stretched over 90 minutes, with the sort of constant winking at the camera which makes any reasonable audience member question why they are wasting their time with this nonsense. Despite my earlier comments, I can't imagine a time when I was juvenile enough to enjoy such vapid, obvious, and lazy attempts at humor.

And obvious and lazy are really the key words here. Some of the supporting cast - most notably career goofball Harland Williams and Jerky Boy/Family Guy regular John G. Brennan - seem to be giving it the old college try, but are consistently sunk by dialogue which mistakes creative swearing for comedy. From what I've read, i'm sure that I will be accused of not understanding "Juggalo Humor". However, for those not familiar with this style of humor, let me explain it to you. It involves fat people eating pizza, cops eating doughnuts, and terrible musicians in clown make-up calling people "motherfuckos". It's a couple of notches down from your average Troma production, which is already a few notches down from funny.

I mentioned earlier that the film squanders meager resources, but I want to clarify that the budget - reported to be between $250-300 thousand - did manage to provide solid production credits. It was shot on 35mm film, and though the direction (by John Cafiero) is pedestrian, it's also professional. Sound and lighting all are at the level of your average straight-to-video production. Behind the scenes issues aside (and this is elaborated on in the commentary), there was potential with this level of creative freedom to do something unique, so it actually registers as a disappointment that everyone involved were content to create something so safe and boring and mediocre.

And blame has to be placed solely on Shaggy 2 Dope and - particularly - Violent J, since they conned their obsessive fans into paying for and watching what is essentially a circle jerk. It says a lot that despite (according to the commentary) writing every word of the screenplay, Violent J still chose to improvise his own  dialogue. His scenes are unbearable, featuring constant mugging and gawking at the camera to the point where it's difficult not to feel slightly embarrassed for him. Shaggy fairs better, though seems to lack any of the charisma he shows on stage when put in front of a camera. Despite being a supposed bad-ass, he's constantly being dominated by the more polished performers around him.

The Island Records DVD release of Big Money Hustlas presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and - as mentioned - it looks perfectly average. Original music is by ICP music producer Mike E. Clark and it's solid, if unspectacular. There's also an appearance of the theme song (performed by Rudy Ray Moore) from The Human Tornado which ends up being one of the film's highlights. That isn't saying much.

We're treated to a feature length commentary by Violent J, Rude Boy and Alex which is quite soul-destroying to sit through.Violent J moans about not being able to sleep with the extras, about how the crew hated them because the band were partying in their tour bus while they were working long hours (what an asshole!), and how the crew almost mutinied when he tried to fire a "bitch" that brought her dog to the set. The other two just agree with everything J says, even if it's completely repeating - word for word - a story that they just finished telling. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that this was ten years ago, and hopefully they've toned down a bit on the misogyny, homophobia, and general jackassery on display here. 

We also get a discography (oh joy!), and videos for the songs "Tilt-A-Whirl" and their cover of the Sly Fox song "Let's Go All The Way". Both videos are significantly better than this movie.

Worthless. Brainless. Humorless. A fucking chore to sit through, and a sad indictment of the Insane Clown Posse and their fans. Big Money Hustlas is a sad curiosity and is about as entertaining as dental surgery - and only slightly less painful. Stick to laughing at their absurd youtube clips and stay far away for this abortion of a film unless you're looking to cause yourself grievous mental harm. 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Capsule Review: Memento (2000)

A brilliant, though potentially gimmicky, premise surrounds Christopher Nolan's breakthrough film Memento, a neo-noir mystery concerning a man searching for his wife's killer while suffering from anterograde amnesia, which renders his brain unable to store new memories. Somewhat against all odds this unfolds perfectly thanks to a brilliant screenplay by Nolan (based on a short story by his brother Jonathan) which delivers information in fits and starts while - brilliantly - presenting the scenes in reverse chronological order. The central plot is broken up by black and white sequences which provide for some exposition while hinting at the bigger mystery to come. Despite early confusion, this is a real winner of a film featuring a great lead performance by Guy Pearce as Leonard, the memorably tattooed protagonist and both Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss giving strikingly sleazy support.

Capsule Review: Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

Set in Western Australia in 1931, Rabbit-Proof Fence concerns the Aborigine Act - an unspeakably racist law which allowed the government to remove half-caste children from their parents. This true story follows sisters Molly and Daisy (14 and 10 years old) , with their cousin Gracie (8), as they attempt to walk 1500 miles from their Native Settlement Camp back to their home in the Jigalong Community. It's a harrowing tale, as the young girls barely escape recapture at every turn and find surprising sympathy from the people they meet along the way. Acting is sometimes a little shaky from the young leads - which is to be expected - but Kenneth Branagh puts in a wonderfully villainous turn as A.O. Neville, the "Chief Protector of Aborigines". The final shots - featuring the real life Molly and Daisy - are particularly affecting. Director Phillip Noyce is well known for Hollywood efforts like Sliver and Patriot Games, but here his direction is nuanced and subtle - using first person and steadicam shots liberally to suck the audience into the action.

Capsule Review: Adaptation. (2002)

After a successful teaming with Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman re-teamed in a film even more willing to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Nicholas Cage plays Charlie Kaufman, a neurotic screenwriter tangling with some minor success as his script for Being John Malkovich goes into production, as he attempts to adapt Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief" into a film. Cage also plays Kaufman's fictional brother Donald, who finds easy success writing formulaic junk featuring twist endings and car chases. The events of the book unfold as the film skirts around in time - we witness Orlean (played by Merryl Streep) develop a relationship with Orchid hunter John Laroche (the amazing Chris Cooper) - and things become intertwined in the final third where all the parties finally come together. An amusing, and occasionally mind-bending meditation on reality and the difficulty of creation, Adaptation manages to work almost despite itself - thanks to clever direction and some terrific performances. Kaufman would explore some of these themes again in his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Three Outlaw Samurai - Vol 1 (1970)


Hideo Gosha, one of my all-time favourite directors, made a name for himself with his early TV series “Three Outlaw Samurai,” or so I’ve been told. This series led to Gosha’s first film in 1964, a cinematic adaptation of the same series. It seems someone (perhaps Gosha himself) remained quite fond of the series, since in 1970 a new TV version started back up. The only returning cast member was Isamu Nagato, who reprised his role as Sakura Kyojuro, the spear master. The other two members of the “three outlaw samurai” were not only new actors, but new characters as well. So, is this a remake, or a continuation of the original series? Sadly, I can’t tell you. What I can tell you, though, is that the new series got off to a pretty great start.


Gen Takamori as Kaeda Genzaburo

The first episode of “Three Outlaw Samurai” (re)introduces the audience to Sakura Kyojuro, a ronin whose weapon of choice is the spear. He serves as the show’s moral center, and it’s comedy relief--think of Toshiro Mifune’s yojimbo character in SANJURO. He has, I’m not embarrassed to say, an enchanting twinkle in his eye, and seems incredibly comfortable in front of the camera.

Before we get to Sakura, though, the audience first encounters one of the series’ new characters, Nagare Ukon, a surely, emotionless ronin and iai master (I got this last bit--“iai master”--from the write up. If I understand correctly, that means his specialty is drawing his sword from his scabbard and killing you with one stroke). If Sakura is this movie’s comic relief, Nagare is his foil; played by Noboru Ando, a former real-life yakuza whose face is scarred from a run-in with a knife-wielding Korean gangster in his youth, Nagare talks little and kills lots. Sakura and Nagare meet up when the latter returns to the town where he was recently wronged, seeking vengeance. The two soon run afoul Kaeda Genzaburo (Gen Takamori), who initially stands in their way, but eventually becomes the third member of the trio (his role is less determined in the first couple of episodes--if we’ve already got a funny one and a deadly one, I guess he’s the handsome one, or the straight man, or something). While the three start out at odds, all with different goals in mind, they soon unite to take down the town’s corrupt politicians, who are using the citizens as indentured servants in the town’s mine.


Isamu Nagato as Sakura Kyojuro

By the end of the first episode, the three find themselves with a common cause, but the next episode begins with them separated once more. Nagare has come to a watermill, where a large ransom is up for grabs for anyone who can rescue an unnamed captive who is being held by a blind swordsman. Sakura, who also wants the money, meets up with Nagare once more, and the two try to figure out how they can beat all of the other bounty hunters out of the reward. Kaeda, the odd man out, soon arrives, and the three outlaw samurai are once more united. Meanwhile, we slowly learn the back-story to the situation: who is this blind swordsman, and the woman who accompanies him? Who is their captive, and why is he worth so much? And what’s with this 3 PM deadline?


Noboru Ando as Nagare Ukon

The first two episodes of “Three Outlaw Samurai” are directed by Gosha himself, and it shows. Not only are the visuals more striking than you’d expect from a TV series, but the sword fights are off the chain, and in many ways better than many samurai films. Each episode works very well as a miniature movie, introducing a unique plot, some character development, and a bloody showdown resolution. Nagato is a joy to watch, and speaks the lion’s share of the dialogue, which leaves Ando to stand around and be menacing, which is something he excels at. Many of Gosha’s trademarks can be found in the show, such as the repeated portrayal of “legitimate” samurai as villains (and ronin as heroes), and the way even the most moral of characters are likely to end up a victim of a nihilistic bloodbath.

The first three episodes of “Three Outlaw Samurai” were all I could ask for. Can't wait to see where the rest of the series goes.