Sunday, May 29, 2011

Capsule Review: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

What begins as a fairly standard POW film in the Great Escape vein (parts of this are rather obviously an influence on that later film) morphs into something much more psychologically interesting in David Lean's adaptation of the novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai by French writer Pierre Boulle. Buoyed by a staggering performance from Alec Guinness - one that easily could have turned into caricature in the hands of a less gifted actor - the film splits into two sections: the first featuring Guinness' Colonel Nichol­son and his captured British POWs building the titular bridge under the watch of the initially sadistic Colonel Saito (Ses­sue Hayakawa), while the second follows the wonderful William Holden as escaped prisoner Com­man­der Shears and his being recruited for a return mission to destroy the bridge. Being a Lean film it almost goes without saying that the proceedings are epic in both scope and length, but what is most impressive is the director's restraint - this is a war film far away from actual combat, with the eventual explosive finale much different than that of traditional war films. The bridge's destruction is as much as mental release as a physical one, the eradication of a massive wooden crutch for an admirable but essentially broken man. There's plenty of gorgeous scenery and fine supporting performances - Jack Hawkins as the courageous but cold Major War­den is a stand-out - but the lasting image of this film is Colonel Nicholson's often maddeningly courageous attempts to maintain mental and physical order in his men amongst the insanity of his situation.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #34: The Summer of the Massacre (2006)

Well, this is just terrible. A bafflingly misguided "tribute" to the grimy horror films of the 70s - most notably The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - this British shot-on-video horror film starts out awful before eventually grinding down to reprehensibly boring, lost in a sea of improvised conversations and endless, style-less chase scenes. Not only does director Bryn Hammond have the writing skill of a four year old - ably demonstrated by the multitude of confusing, near-unreadable title cards at the beginning and end  - but his direction totally sabotages some very attractive locations, and the editing is about as amateurish as your grandmother's home movies. This is about as close to a cinematic root-canal as you're likely to find.

After a 7 minute (!) run through the woods which introduces us to Hammerhead, a grunting Leatherface rip-off that looks like a cast-off from The Strangers and uses a tiny hammer to murder people for some undefined reason, we're introduced to our four leads who are making their way back home from school (?) in a particularly crappy old van. We know it's crappy because the four decide to spend many precious minutes improvising endless amounts of uninteresting dialogue talking about this very fact. The opening text - and, seriously, it's so badly written it should be the stuff of legend - describes the group as "very young" teenagers, but they are obviously the early-20s cannon fodder you would expect in a movie like this.

An ACTUAL title card.
Soon we're on our way, and I would be remiss to not mention that every time the film cuts to another angle there is an audible change in the film's sound quality, which continues for the rest of the running time and is extremely distracting. The flip-side is that Hammond lets the dialogue scenes go on endlessly without any edits at all, so I guess I shouldn't complain. We now get the requisite drive through the English countryside - which actually looks quiet pleasant - while superfluous screen title cards tell us how much time has passed. After a brief, painful discussion the group decide to take a shortcut to (ostensibly) save time, despite already running low on gas.

Does their lorry run out of petrol? You bet it does, and soon the entire crew is stranded in some very attractive (and visibly mowed) forest. Despite all four having cell phones, they oddly can't get any signal (this is 2006, people!) and despite only moments ago seeing plenty of vehicle traffic during a stop at an abandoned gas-station (don't ask), two of them decide to attempt to walk to get some fuel for the car. There's plenty more banal, at least semi-improvised dialogue that makes everyone involved seem totally incompetent, while the audience checks their watch to see if Hammerhead will be making an appearance soon.

Let's talk about the acting for a moment. The characters here are so ill-defined that it would be useless to single any out by name, but despite their necessity to burn up time with awful made-up dialogue they really are not terrible actors. Perhaps the accents are helping their cause, but they all seem to be trying awfully hard against a film that goes to a great effort to make them look totally idiotic. It's difficult to not feel sorry for them as they are somehow overpowered (and out-run) by some spindly weirdo in a mask, or as they are asked to constantly be tripping over nothing during the monotonous chase scenes. This would also be a good time to mention that one of the characters - Katie - is apparently supposed to be pregnant (a "very young" teenager) though I somehow completely missed this fact until it's mentioned during the film's (confusing) closing title card.

Back to the plot. Hammerhead shows up and kills one of the two "teens" who have chosen to stay with the van, hitting him in the head - unconvincingly - with a tiny hammer before saran-wrapping his head to a tree for a reason that still baffles me. I should note that not only is the hammer used by Hammerhead extremely little, it's also an actual hammer instead of a fake gimmick one, so we never get to see it make any sort of contact with his victims. In fact, he generally misses by several feet with each swing. Katie is also chased for an interminable amount of time before being beaten and tied up in the killer's filthy shack. Lucky her.

The two other teens return to the van - apparently unsuccessful in their petrol procurement - only to find Hammerhead rifling through it. Prepare for all of your favorite slasher movie chase clichés, as the two stumble and fall over repeatedly while the killer grunts and runs after them. This is all in broad, harsh daylight amongst some beautiful scenery, which doesn't exactly help with the tension levels. I'll skip to the end bit and tell you that - despite stabbing, beating and appearing to easily overpower their lanky tormentor - the two somehow get themselves killed. I give an audible sigh of relief, hoping that perhaps we'll get a ten minute credits sequence to end things off on a high note, but - no - apparently Katie is still kicking.

Katie manages to untie herself and wander around the shack - which looks to be a legitimate abandoned residence - before one more tiresome chase and fight that ends with the apparent death of Hammerhead. After ten minutes straight of nothing but screaming and grunting on the soundtrack, I have to admit that this was very welcome. The film's tagline says "The UK's answer to Jason Voorhees", so I'm sure everyone involved was hoping for an opportunity to make dozens of sequels with their toothless and derivative character, but sadly it looks like that won't be happening.

The ending title cards inform as that Katie lost her baby - which apparently existed - and that the killer is still at large. I can't really overemphasize how much the text on these cards appear to be written by someone with a very loose grasp on the English language. Spelling and grammar are at pre-school level which makes the fact that director Bryn Hammond actually owned and published his own magazine (called Gorezone) absolutely frightening. Equally amusing is Bryn's IMDB page, which has perhaps the silliest list of Personal Quotes I've ever read. I don't mean to make this a personal attack, but everything about that profile makes me want to push him down a flight of stairs.

And despite running a magazine (and brand) called Gorezone, this production is notably lacking in any sort of on-screen violence. Sure, there's a bit of blood and a few severed limbs at the end, but any effects are solely of the "hold this stick against you and pretend to be stabbed" variety. When one character has their hand supposedly nailed to a tree, the brief shot clearly shows the nail sticking out between her fingers, though at least Bryn (with his trademark "beauty spot on his right cheek") cuts away from it quickly.

The Summer of the Massacre (even the TITLE is awkward) is presented in a perfectly reasonable full-screen which has all of the usual glitches that we've come to expect in the Bloody Nightmares collection. There's plenty of digital artifacting during the chase scenes, but you're already probably so distracted by the poor quality of the production as a whole that it likely won't bother you. Thankfully the sound quality is quite reasonable, and dialogue is comprehensible despite a lot of mumbling and thick accents. There's a bit of original music - including an opening theme - but no actual score, with Bryn preferring to instead soundtrack the many chases with various grunts and squeaks. How pleasant.

We're in Bloody Nightmares territory, so we don't even get any chapter stops. Special features? You're in the wrong place. The most special thing about this production is that it's mercifully only 72 minutes long.

Perhaps second only to Hip Hop Locos in terms of painful awkwardness, The Summer of the Massacre seems to do just about every possible thing wrong yet still remains pitifully turgid and humorless. I have shown a lot of respect to the filmmakers in this collection who have attempted to create something original despite creative and budgetary limitations, but I find Hammond's lack of attention to his craft personally offensive, and can only hope that he's vastly improved his efforts since. Frankly, he has nowhere to go but up. Stay far away.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Capsule Review: À bout de souffle (aka Breathless) (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock once described drama as being life with the dull bits cut out, and this idea is taken to its logical extreme in Jean-Luc Godard’s legendary À bout de souffle where conversations and movement are interrupted to push the action forward. These jump cuts were an afterthought, a way to shorten a film that was running too long in Godard's eye, but represents a freshness and improvisational spirit that permeates everything in the film. The central relationship between Jean-Paul Belmondo's small time crook Michel and the pixie-ish Jean Seberg as Patricia is revolutionary, informing the films that followed so completely that it's nearly impossible to picture the independent revolution of American films in the later 60s and 70s without this as a starting point. This influence is perhaps a trade, considering how much the American gangster films of the 30s and 40s influenced Godard and his fellow French New Wave directors - displayed by Michel's non-stop smoking and cinematic affectations. It all still feels startlingly fresh - and when viewed in the context of the films immediately before it seems like something beamed back from the future - and even the post-dubbed dialogue seems to be used to maximum artistic effect. Of course, the characters are self-absorbed and often eye-rollingly obtuse, and the jazzy score sometimes threatens to overwhelm the action, but these are all minor complaints when viewed in the context of what this began. Followed by flawed but fascinating remake starring Richard Gere in 1983.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Yes, I Understand That Lars Von Trier Is A Dumbass. Go And See "Melancholia," Anyway.

The staff here at Movie Feast loves cult cinema and our readers are the beneficiaries (or victims) of our preferred viewing habits. However that doesn't mean that we don't pay attention to important events in mainstream cinema.

Case in point.

Unless you live under a rock or something, you've probably read dozens of articles concerning the controversial comments of Lars Von Trier, director of films such as Dancer In The Dark and Antichrist.

I won't run over old ground here by repeating Von Trier's rather insouciant and reckless commentary, suffice to say that I personally feel that they were the inane ramblings of someone trying to sell a movie under the impression that any publicity is good publicity.

The problem is that like some directors (or artists in general), Von Trier best expresses himself through his work (or worst if you've read Evil Ash's review of Antichrist). You cannot give people like that a microphone and expect good things to happen. For better or worse, guys like that have a habit of saying exactly what is on their mind.

The addage of "If you don't have something nice to say...." is lost on these folks.

The tragedy here is the potential backlash towards his latest film, the apocalyptic sci-fi exposition known as Melancholia. It is inevitable that resistance to show this movie (or the overwhelming desire to put it on a screen) will be driven by reaction to Trier's comments instead of reaction to the film. As with anyone else's work, I am sure that there will be reasons to either love or hate Melancholia that have absolutely nothing to do with Von Trier's ill-timed comments.

Decisions about the merits of Melancholia should be drawn from the film itself rather than the puerile and idiotic statements of Von Trier. Von Trier's banter only shows that he chose the right profession when he decided to be a director.

His career as a stand-up comedian would've gone up in flames his first time onstage.

As for the question of whether or not I support the Cannes executive board to ban Von Trier, the answer is "absolutely." I don't reward bad behavior in my household from my daughter so why should the Cannes executive board? Let Von Trier tell Nazi jokes on his own time in his own home around people that understand where he is coming from.

If he can't conduct himself in a public forum in a manner expected from a professional, then he needs to stay out of the public eye or at least hire a good publicist to speak for him at these sorts of events.

I think I feel the sorriest for the Israeli distributor of Von Trier's work. It is going to be a quiet summer for that guy.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda) (2010)

How should we interpret the now-overwhelming theme of revenge that has permeated South Korean film-making for the past decade? Most notably (and stylishly) explored in Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, the idea of planned, often horrifically violent retribution seems far-removed from the similarly themed American revenge films of the 1970s which often focuses on ordinary citizens who felt handcuffed by the limitations of the law. While elements of this still exist in the Korean counterparts, there's something much more deliberate and brutal in the redemptive efforts of the protagonists that often goes far beyond the simplistic "shoot the baddies" vigilantism on display in films like Death Wish. I Saw The Devil is Kim Jee-woon's (The Good, the Bad, the Weird, A Tale of Two Sisters) take on the genre, and his usual unrestrained intensity and penchant for oddness is definitely on display. While the story begins to lose steam near the end of the sometimes exhausting 141 minute runtime, there are enough unforgettable moments and brilliantly staged set pieces that it makes for a worthwhile entry in the strangely enduring genre.

And it would be nearly impossible to review I Saw The Devil without mentioning the previous Vengeance films, as Kim Jee-woon's effort could be seen as a deliberate response to that series, including the casting of Oldboy protagonist and Lady Vengeance antagonist Choi Min-sik as serial killer Kyung-chul. While the subject matter doesn't appear to be critical of those earlier films - which dissected the entire idea of revenge so completely that it would seem to be the final word on the subject - he does take it to its logical extreme, where the actions of the  punisher and punished eventually become nearly indistinguishable.

Lee Byung-hun (The Good, the Bad, the WeirdJoint Se­cu­rity Area) stars as Kim Soo-hyeon, a special agent who begins a near emotionless crusade of revenge against Kyung-chul after the rape and murder of his pregnant fiancée. Utilizing a GPS bug which he forces into Kyung-chul after an interrupted abduction attempt, Soo-hyeon decides to show the killer the pain and fear that he has forced in others, following him dutifully while he pillages, only to brutalize him in response at every turn. But Kyung-chul proves to be a more resourceful character than expected, and who is exactly getting revenge on who soon begins to twist, leading to a predictably bloody climax.

Not quite the exploration of evil that the title suggests, Kyung-chul's campaign provides little closure or satisfaction, instead demolishing his professional and personal relationships, and it would be easy to interpret Lee Byung-hun's cold performance as similarly methodical like Liam Neeson's in Taken. Instead, early scenes showing the character barely holding in his intense grief provide a necessary counterpoint to his stoic blood-letting and bone-breaking which take up much of the film. This is a man in pain, and Lee Byung-hun does as much as possible with his restrained performance, particularly in the face of Choi Min-sik's wild murderer who seems completely unfazed by the pursuit as he continues his path of violence. Min-sik delivers another frightening and unforgettable performance, diving enthusiastically into the often revolting character with gusto. It's somewhat refreshing that even suggestions of nuance are soon quashed by some disgusting act, revealing a darkness that is quite unforgettable.

Jee-woon may not quite bring the flash and bravado in his film-making as some of his contemporaries, but he's still a stylish and skilled filmmaker who brings energy to the action scenes sprinkled throughout the run-time. His camera swoops around hurtling vehicles and flying bodies, while pausing to allow for the quiet moments in between. There's also hints of the usual bizarre humor, including Kyung-chul taking refuge with a fellow serial killer couple who also happen to be cannibals, but most of the tone is rather deadly serious, which eventually serves to get a bit tiresome. While the scenes are expertly staged, they do tend to eventually feel somewhat repetitive, and occasionally the sheer revelry in unpleasantness veers uncomfortably close to SAW-like horror films - particularly at the very end.

Those who enjoy the particularly extreme Korean take on revenge films may not find much new in I Saw The Devil, but what is here is done extremely well - though may require a strong stomach to fully enjoy. Bodies are sliced, chopped, beaten and broken and the camera rarely shies away from the carnage - Soo-hyeon putting a permanent smile on a character's face being a personal favorite - but this revelry eventually begins to get a bit tiresome, and what is left doesn't quite have the resonance of Chan-wook's trilogy. Still wonderfully acted and directed, and will satiate any audience member with a taste for bloody revenge.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Man From Nowhere (2010)


Lee Jeong-beom’s first movie, CRUEL WINTER BLUES, was a tense, understated, and deeply human revenge film. I wrote about it for Movie Feast, and lavished praise it; a couple of months later, the film is still with me. It was low on action, and high on character and emotion. For his follow-up, Jeong-beom decided to throw “understated” out the window, and went for a balls-out action movie. And I’m OK with that.


Action heroes should not look like emo kids

I’ve maintained before (though perhaps not specifically on MF) that South Korean filmmakers have rather brilliantly decided not to reinvent the wheel, and instead often take well-established, familiar stories, from well-established, familiar genres, tweak their morality a bit, and then shoot it all brilliantly. Personally, I don’t see a lot of innovation in Korean cinema (at least not the Korean cinema that makes its way over here), but I do see an amazing amount of craft. They don’t need to tell stories in reverse, or have their protagonists become unstuck in time, or adventure with innovative CGI. They just take a good ol’ fashion story, and polish it up real nice. And that’s a good thing.


THE MAN FROM NOWHERE is a good example of this trend. Believe it or not, the script (minus the parts peculiar to Korea) could have been written for Jean-Claude Van Damme during his heyday in the 90s. It’s pretty simple: a mysterious loner named Cha Tae-Sik (Won Bin) runs a pawn shop, where his only friend is a feisty and cute little girl named So-Mi (played by the feisty and cute little Kim Sae-ron). At the beginning of the film, So-Mi’s mother, along with her partner, rob a drug dealer, and stash the drugs in Cha’s shop. This is a bad idea. The drug dealer’s men come and kidnap her, and take lil’ So-Mi as well. When they find out she stashed the drugs with Cha, they pay him a visit. And so he fucks them up. Badly.

In a revelation that will come as welcome and expected to action movie fans everywhere, it turns out Cha is an ex-special agent who worked as an assassin (go figure!) for the Korean government. So, he’s a well-trained badass, and while he’s got relatively few morals or human connections, there is just some shit he can’t abide, and kidnapping cute little girls is one of them. So, inevitably, he sets out to kill every last one of those motherfuckers.



But wait, it gets better: these guys don’t just deal drugs, they kidnap children to harvest their organs! Presumably they also strangle puppies in their spare time. You probably don’t remember that from any JCVD movies. Maybe a Segal one, though. In any event, the more fucked up the villains get, the more Cha has to hurt them, and hurt them badly.

And so you end up with a pretty standard action/revenge film, but filmed more simply and beautifully than anything that Hollywood has put out in a long time. Also, in many cases, more violently. Korean cinema is the cinema of well-dressed, well-lit people doing horrific things to each other. And that’s swell.


Of course, one of the other things that distinguishes Korean film, no matter how similar it might be to its North American counterparts, is that it doesn’t play fancy with morality. Good guys don’t always win, just because they’re good guys (if there are any fucking good guys in the movie), and heroes often fail to save the day in the nick of time.

THE MAN FROM NOWHERE is a fun film to watch. It hasn’t left an indelible mark on me--I’ve seen things since that I’ll remember better, and for longer--but it was nice to see someone happy to revisit the type of action films that made the late 80s and 90s so great, and to do it without a hint of irony or nostalgia.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #33: Slasher (aka Blood Cult) (1985)

Blood Cult (renamed Slasher for this collection, despite its general notoriety and the existence of a sequel) was the very first straight-to-video film ever released, which affords it a rather unique place in movie history. Not surprisingly, it's also a cheapo slasher film, and - critically - is also shot on video, giving it that unique early 80s porno look. Utilizing a nine day shooting schedule, director Christopher Lewis tells a by-the-number stalk and slash tale with requisite nods to Halloween and Psycho, but with some gore thrown in for good measure. I've actually seen another of Lewis' shot-on-video epics, Ripper (1985) (which features a small appearance by Tom Savini), and he's a bland if capable director who gets some reasonable mileage out of his slasher scenes, but pads out his running time interminably with scenes of characters sitting around and talking.

But here's the good news for me. I can't give this film a proper review, as the fine folks at Pendulum Pictures managed to botch the transfer of Blood Cult quite spectacularly for its appearance in the Bloody Nightmares collection. What starts out dark and glitchy becomes totally unwatchable, as the final 30 minutes of the movie are totally without sound! Indeed, at a critical moment in the film the soundtrack goes completely mute and it doesn't return for the entirety of the rest of the movie. That said, here are a few thoughts on the plot, since I'd hate to not give the film its due.

"Have you ever had an Egyptian feast?" Oh, sorry. Wrong movie. Anyway, a masked killer is slashing his way through a group of sorority girls, baffling local Sheriff Ron Wilbois (Charles Ellis) who seems rather overwhelmed by a serial killer terrifying his small town. Oddly, the killer also leaves a medallion featuring the image of a dog's head the scene of his crimes, and takes pieces of his victim's bodies for an apparent ritual. How do we know this? Well, thankfully the Sheriff's daughter works at the college library, and manages to track down an occult book which explains that the killings might have to do with some sort of ancient ceremony. Under pressure from the Dean, Wilbois tracks down a complaint from a local farmer regarding apparent poachers making a lot of noise and lighting fires in the nearby woods - which just might be caused by the titular blood cult. While checking out the nighttime ritual - along with his daughters boyfriend for reasons I can't begin to comprehend - the.. whole movie goes totally silent. I did scan ahead to find out who the killer was - spoiler: it's ridiculous - but the exact details of how and why the whole thing pans out isn't something I'm prepared to guess at.

The film opens with a well-staged ten minute murder scene ripped wholesale from Halloween, but at least proves that Lewis can be a capable director when inspired. Even better is the immediately following murder scene where the killer sits in a rocking chair, having decapitated a sorority girl before beating her room-mate unconscious with her severed head. Unfortunately things go rapidly downhill from here, slowing to a crawl as we get a voice-over from the aged Sheriff and his encounters with his daughter and deputy. Lewis tries to spice these scenes up with a few interesting angles, but a nine day shoot doesn't allow for much inventiveness and most scenes are just extended padding to try and get this mess to 90 minutes.

Acting is about what you would expect, though at least the cast seem to know their lines fairly well and only a few flubs are left in the final film. Charles Ellis as Ron Wilbois does a serviceable job, and it's sort of nice to have a protagonist thats a bit older, but he looks as baffled by the plot as anyone else. The less said about James Vance's odd looking Joel Hogan the better, and I'm guessing the biggest acting test for Juli Andelman (as Wilbois' daughter) came after the film went silent. Oh well.

Gore is strictly of the sliced limbs and fake blood variety, though there's a slow gag at the school cafeteria featuring some severed fingers if you're into that sort of thing. You'll never actually care about anyone who is in danger in these scenes, but that's sort of par for the course with these nothing slasher films. It does have a better than average soundtrack by Rod Slane, which at least occasionally makes the proceedings feel like an actual movie, but it really only stands out because of the averageness that surrounds it.

Blood Cult is presented in a murky, dark presentation likely sourced from a VHS tape - this re-edit of the film occurred in 1997, so it's a little hard to say, but there are digital glitches regularly throughout. Lots of digital artifacting, particularly in the darker scenes, but aside from some shaky moments during the second murder scene it's fairly standard VHS quality. Lots of noise on the soundtrack forced me to crank the volume to be able to make out some of the dialogue, and even then it was a little messy, but that could have as much to do with the transfer as with the original recording.

It's hardly worth mentioning that, this being a Bloody Nightmares release, we don't get any special features or even chapter stops. However, allowing me to get away with not watching the final 30 minutes is like a bonus feature in an of itself. Thanks, Pendulum Pictures!

I don't feel comfortable giving a solid opinion on a film that I missed thirty minutes of, but I can safely say that while there are a smattering of interesting moments in the initial hour, this is generally an uninspired slasher that does nothing to rise above the hundred others that were pouring out in the mid-1980s. It's certainly more polished that most of the efforts in this collection - featuring a fine musical score and competent direction - but it's more memorable for its place in the history of straight-to-video productions than for anything original it brings to the table. Followed by Revenge: Blood Cult 2 in 1986.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thor (2011)

Out of all the sequels, reboots, and all-around mindless fare being released this summer, Thor appeared to be the biggest gamble of the lot. How many people were actually waiting on a film adaptation of a Marvel Comics b-list superhero based on a Norse God who speaks in something approaching Shakespearean soliloquies? Well, feel free to hit up Fandango, because Marvel finally has another successful film franchise on its hands to go along with Iron Man.

I suspect much of the credit should go to director Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) for crafting such a well-made film out of such lowbrow source material. He made a wise decision by focusing most of the attention on an excellent supporting cast and not requiring relative film newcomer Chris Hemsworth (Star Trek) to carry the entire picture. Not to imply that Hemsworth makes a bad Thor, but other than filling out the costume it doesn't seem as if much is asked of him here.

The film begins with a team of physicists (Natalie Portman among them) discovering Thor in the New Mexico desert after he is cast out of Asgard by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), for disobeying and almost starting a war against the Frost Giants. His banishment offers Loki (an excellent Tom Hiddleston) the opportunity to take the throne after Odin falls ill. From there we are introduced to the Warriors Three: Destroyer; Idris Elba as a black Norse God; and Rene Russo back from the dead.

I'm not going to lie; the movie is basically 130 minutes of origin meant to set up The Avengers and—box office receipts willing—Thor 2. But it is also 130 minutes of fun. With Thor, Marvel and Paramount have given us a movie almost as rich in its storytelling as the original mythology.

Jumping the Broom (2011)

Earlier this week I was running down my list of upcoming screenings with a friend. When I got to Jumping the Broom I described it as “second rate Tyler Perry, but less subtle.” Now, at that point I had not seen the film. I was literally basing the description on the fact that it was a mostly African-American cast in a movie produced by the Bishop T.D. Jakes. I had never actually watched one of Jakes' films before, but he's a Bishop, so I assumed he would beat me over the head with the holy roller stuff as soon as I sat down. By the end of the film I was surprised to find that, while the film has its, “Help me, Jesus,” scenes here and there that I can definitely do without, this is a solid piece of cinema.

The film opens on Sabrina, played by the beautiful Paula Patton (Precious), waking up from a one-night stand. While the dude is on his phone making plans for later that night with his girlfriend, Sabrina makes a deal with God that if he helps her leave this situation with a little dignity intact then she won't have sex again until she is married. The next scene is the meet-cute, where she hits her fiance-to-be (Laz Alonso) with a car, and after five months of dating (and holding out), he proposes.

Here is where it gets a little Green Acres. See, her family is all Martha's Vineyard, and his family is all Brooklyn, so you know sparks are going to fly! Also, Julie Bowen (Modern Family) is on hand as the wacky white wedding coordinator to say things like, “Man, you guys really love your chicken, don't you?”

Okay, the plot is a little hack, but there are some great performances in this film. Angela Bassett plays Sabrina's mom and, while stopping just short of chewing the scenery, manages to hold an acting clinic. A special career achievement award should also go to Mike Epps for finally giving a crap in a movie and attempting to act instead of just mugging for the camera.

The most surprising aspect of the film is the great work given by the director, Salim Akil, in his feature film debut. Best known for TV work on such series as Girlfriends and The Game, he shows a confidence lacking in directors that are on their tenth film, and he has no problem at all juggling the cast of seemingly dozens. While watching the film there were moments when it seemed to have been staged by Robert Altman. Akil is a name to watch for in the future.

I would hasten to guess that this movie isn't the usual fare that the average Movie Feast reader would watch. It's too religious, too sincere, too… un-jaded? All I'm saying is, if you're not feeling like a comic book movie this weekend, you could do worse than this. C'mon, let love open the door to your heart.

There Be Dragons (2011)

There have been rumors going around for years that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon never actually wrote Good Will Hunting. Sure, the story goes, they came up with the basic structure and storyline for the film, but various writer friends actually put in the man hours to shape it into what it became: an Academy Award winner. Hence, the duo has never attempted another script.

I think that's crap. The highways of the worlds of science, literature, music, and film are littered with what are lovingly referred to as “one-hit wonders,” people who had one shining moment, one great idea and that was it.

What does this have to do with There Be Dragons? Well, have you looked at director Roland Joffe's filmography lately?

Joffe was an English director best known for his work on the stage and BBC before making his film debut in 1984 with The Killing Fields. That film, detailing the friendship between two journalists during Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Director. His next film, 1986's The Mission, told the story of an 18th century Jesuit missionary in South America. This film also received seven Academy Award nominations, and once again Joffe found himself nominated for Best Director.

Since then Joffe's career has resembled the Iguazu Falls depicted in The Mission. Among the lowlights: the disastrous Demi Moore vehicle The Scarlet Letter, an uncredited turn co-directing Super Mario Bros., and slumming it by wallowing in the torture porn genre with Captivity.

Joffe attempts a return to relevance with There Be Dragons. First things first… no, there are no dragons. There is, unfortunately, a poorly plotted tale involving Opus Dei founder and Catholic saint Josemaria Escriva (Charlie Cox), the Spanish Civil War, and Wes Bentley (American Beauty) plastered in old man latex makeup.

The film begins by telling the audience that the movie is based on true events. Well, yes, the war really did happen and Escriva was a real person, but Joffe invented everything else in the script as a framing device to tell the story of Escriva. We meet Robert Torres (Dougray Scott) while he is researching a biography on Escriva. He finds that his estranged father (Bentley, as both young and old Manolo Torres) may be his most promising source, as he and Escriva were close friends before taking divergent paths. Unfortunately, his father isn't exactly freeflowing with the information, unless you count the endless voiceover narration that occurs during the film. It becomes apparent within minutes of the film that Joffe isn't a big fan of “show, don't tell.”

It can be said without hesitation that Joffe has two masterpieces on his resume. It can also be said that somewhere along the way, whether it was a loss of creative drive or perhaps too much creative freedom, his career came off the rails. Unfortunately for the financiers of this film, this is not the movie that set it all back right.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Capsule Review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

While significantly dated by its restraint (though controversial for its language at the time), and perhaps dulled by decades of courtroom dramas that were to follow, Anatomy of a Murder still crackles because of a game cast - particularly James Stewart in the lead - and a case that throws enough (reasonable) twists to keep you guessing until the end. Director Otto Preminger takes the unique approach of forgoing flashbacks, instead letting the information be uncovered naturally before turning the home-spun Paul Biegler (Stewart) loose on the overwhelmed D.A. Mitch Lodwick along with the prissy Asst. State Atty. Gen. Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). The court scenes really sizzle with energy, combining outrage with scenes of good humor - mostly delivered by real life attorney (and Joseph McCarthy opponent) Joseph N. Welch as Judge Weaver. The eventual outcome is a bit too neat, but the build up is relentlessly entertaining.

Capsule Review: North by Northwest (1959)

Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock's most entertaining film, North By Northwest is an absolute juggernaut, matching a wonderfully witty script by Ernest Lehman with an impossibly charismatic Cary Grant in the lead. While lacking some of the more interesting psychological elements of Hitchcock's previous film Vertigo, here the action and adventure have been ratcheted up immensely, with Grant's famous crop-duster encounter and the climax on Mount Rushmore (which has aged surprisingly well) just two of the many memorable set pieces on display. Combine with an outstanding Bernard Herrmann score and a great opening credits sequence by Saul Bass, and you have a film that is nearly impossible not to like. Memorable supporting turns by Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and (particularly) a creepy Martin Landau complete the picture, but it's Hitchcock's sure hand that makes this mistaken-identity spy picture really sizzle - bringing to mind some of the better early James Bond entries. Absolutely essential.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Capsule Review: Easy Rider (1969)

It's hard to comprehend just how revolutionary Easy Rider was for both popular culture and the film industry as a whole upon its release in 1969. Following a hoard of biker films - as well as other films celebrating the counter-culture of the time - none struck the chord quite as strongly, or captured the zeitgeist of the time quite as well. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper - both veterans of low-budget productions - took their accumulated film knowledge and - along with a script from Terry Southern - created a new type of independent film, one that brought audiences to the cinema in droves and would significantly influence the works to come out of Hollywood throughout the 1970s. Its frank depiction of drugs, communal lifestyles, the search for freedom, and the use of popular rock music on the soundtrack would define the era, and the film would launch it's two stars - as well as co-star Jack Nicholson - into leading roles. Obviously dated, the nihilistic ending still packs a hell of a punch.