Friday, 30 April 2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Although it got crushed under the wheels of the The Dark Knight Juggernaut (hey, two comic book references in one), I thought Iron Man was one of the best comic book movies to come out in a while. The Dark Knight showed you could make a Serious Movie out of comic book source material, but Iron Man showed you could make a fun, light-hearted comic book film and still have it be... you know... good. A lot of that had to do with a great script that used witty, character-based humour rather than the usual corny one-liners and Robert Downey Jr.'s great performance. Different writer this time (the guy who wrote Tropic Thunder) but the same director and cast (save for Terence Howard, who is replaced by Don Cheadle).

After an awesome introduction at the Stark Industries tech conference (massive media attendance at a tech expo, now I know I'm watching a movie) Tony Stark heads to congressional hearing where Senator Stern (the great Gary Shandling) is trying to force him to turn over the Iron Man suit to the US Government. Stark claims that the technology is rightfully his and that other countries are years away from the development of similar Iron Man technology. His claim is proven false when he is attacked on a Monaco racetrack by rogue Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) sporting an exoskeleton based on his father's designs. Even worse, Tony Stark's miniature reactor technology, the only thing keeping him alive, is slowly poisoning him. As Stark tries copes with his terminal illness and increased governmental pressure the only way he knows how (booze and hot women), Stark's slimy corporate rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) breaks Vanko out of prison so he can help create technology to rival Stark's. However, Vanko has a plan of his own.

In the wake of The Dark Knight's success, I was worried that this movie was going to go in a darker, grittier direction and deal with Stark's self-destructive alcoholism, which was pretty major part of the comic books. Thankfully they keep thing pretty light, and although he has a drunken, super-powered punch-up with Rhodes that inadvertedly leads to the creation of War Machine, Tony Stark's rampant alcoholism is pretty much played for laffs. Which is a good thing. The first film made the wise decision to keep Downey Jr. out of the suit and in the spotlight as much as possible, and to the film's credit they do the same thing here. Maybe the one-liners aren't quite as polished this time around, but Downey Jr. is so great at playing this character I could watch him all day.

There's a lot of other great performances too. Mickey Rourke makes a great, quirky villain and Sam Rockwell (give this guy an Oscar already, Jesus) is fantastic as Justin Hammer. I don't know that Don Cheadle fares as great as Replacement Rhodes though. He and Downey Jr. don't have anywhere near the same chemistry that Downey Jr. and Howard had in the first film, although to be fair the script doesn't give them much time together. Gwyneth Paltrow's performance as Stark's long-suffering assistant (now newly promoted CEO) Pepper Potts is about on par with the first film, take that as you wish.

So, I guess it's full steam ahead with this Avengers thing? There are nods to the upcoming Thor and Captain America movies, and S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers Initiative are referenced more explicitly than ever before. About an hour and a half in, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up so he and Iron Man can kick back for a bit of exposition and sequel-baiting. I don't know, it just seems a little out of place, like contractually mandated product placement. Even Scarlett Johansson seems a little superfluous as undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (spoilers, I guess) Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow. Despite her top billing she doesn't appear in the film all that much and displays a Costnerian approach to the Russian accent. Looks nice in a bodysuit though.

I really don't know what to think about the Avengers movie. Part of me is excited about a shared universe for these characters, but it really seems like they are counting their super-chickens before they hatch. We are talking about three (or more) different superhero franchises, all with extremely different characters and focuses. What if one of the films turns out to be a collossal shit-pile? I was pretty excited about the Captain America film back when it was going to be an Inglorious-Basterdz-style fictional account of WWII, but that's changed and now Joe Johnston is director. I mean, the guy has made some reasonably competent blockbusters, Wolfman aside, but he doesn't exactly get my blood pumping. Neither does the selection of Chris Evans as Captain America. I like the guy, but do you really want to remind people of those Fantastic 4 movies?

Then there's Kenneth Branagh's Thor. I think this is the part of the Avengers franchise that has the most potential to go spectacularly, horribly wrong. The science in Iron Man may be so soft that you can stuff your pillows with it, but it's a lot easier pill for audiences to swallow than a comic book version of Norse mythology, especially when the Norse God of Thunder is being played by a virtually unknown Australian soap star. That's not even taking into account Branagh's direction. The most commercial film he's made was that mediocre Frankenstein film from the mid 90s. I hope it will be good, because I think the mythological focus will make a nice change from the recent science-fictiony approach to superheroes. It make it a pretty interesting failure at least, especially if they can work in Beta Ray Bill or Frog Thor.

Whoops, I guess I got off track a little. Iron Man 2 was pretty good. Maybe not as good as the first one, but pretty damned enjoyable.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Antichrist (2009)

I thought I'd finally check out this arthouse horror film from Lars Von Trier. It's always interesting to see a Serious Filmmaker have a crack at a genre film. If you think this film might not be arty enough for your tastes though, don't be alarmed. There's a black-and-white prologue (ding!) that's shot entirely in slow motion (ding!) and scored by classical music (ding!). Also, there's fucking with full penetration (ding! ding! ding!). That's how you know this is Serious, capital "A", Art.

The two people fucking are Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsborough. Well I guess they aren't actually fucking (the full penetration insert shot was filmed with stunt genitals I believe) but their characters are never named so that's what I'm calling them. While they are busy getting it on, their toddler climbs out of his crib, pushes a chair up to the open window and walks right off the ledge. Splat. As a result, Gainsborough develops some serious issues (grief, guilt, sex) and ends up in a mental hospital. Finding out your son is dead before the wet patch is even dry will do that to you, I guess.

Dafoe isn't happy about all the medication she's receiving so I thought maybe he was a Scientologist, but it turns out he's a therapist as well as some sort of know-it-all asshole and somehow he convinces the hospital to release her into his care. Gainsborough is having nightmares about their remote cabin in the woods (it's called Eden, get it?), so he decides they should take a trip there so she can face her fears. I know what you're thinking; sex-themed accidental death, cabin in the woods; but don't get too excited. This isn't Friday the 13th or Evil Dead. The toddler doesn't come back to life and start killing people and Gainsborough doesn't get raped by tree (although at one point she does rush out into the woods and starts masturbating furiously). No, this is some more psychological shit. Like I said, Serious Art.

I don't know if Von Trier got attacked by a bear or hated summer camp or what, but he makes the woods seem like the most creepy, malevolent place on Earth. Lots of fog, slow-motion etc. Sometimes he goes a little overboard, such as when Dafoe sees a doe with a stillborn foal hanging out of it's vag and makes a seriously silly "what the fuck?" face. There's also the famous scene where Dafoe stumbles across a wounded fox in the woods that turns to the camera and says "Chaos reigns!" in a deep, growly voice. Too subtle Von Trier, maybe you should have had it's eyes glow and shoot fire out of it's mouth.

Mostly the film is about gender issues and tension between the sexes. Men like sports, women be shoppin'. That sort of thing, only spookier. Dafoe is the typical, coldly rational male. He treats his wife clinically, like a puzzle to be solved. He talks to her the importance of grief, how it's a natural part of the healing process, but he doesn't seem to display any of it himself. Gainsborough, on the other hand, is a complete emotional wreck with serious sex issues. It all ties into Gainsborough's abandoned thesis, something about the demonisation of women throughout history. Most people use Microsoft Word and a copy of EndNote, but she compiled a scrapbook full of spooky illustrations and wrote lots of notes in scribbly handwriting, like a serial killer. I can see why she abandoned it. There's also some stuff about how their son might or might not have been the titular Antichrist. I don't know.

Most of the movie is pretty slow and dreamlike, but in the last twenty minutes it gets pretty crazy. Turns out that during her studies of misogyny Gainsborough internalised all that shit about women being evil, and at the end of the film she goes completely batshit. She bashes Dafoe's dick with a block of wood and while he's unconscious she gives him a handjob until he ejaculates blood. Then she cuts her clitoris off with a pair of scissors. Like I said, sex issues. Then she drills a hole in his leg and attaches a millstone so he can't escape. Dafoe manages to drag himself into a foxhole, killing an incredibly tenacious bird so he isn't given away. Eventually he manages to escape, but as he is running through the woods he is confronted by a crowd of creepy, faceless women. Fin.

I liked this one. Von Trier is criticised as being a misogynist, which I guess he invites with his subject matter and frequent public outbursts, but I didn't really get that from this film. The way I see it the film is about man being forced to confront the results of marginalisation and oppression of women and the demonisation of female sexuality. Also that nature kind of blows and talking foxes aren't as creepy as Von Trier thinks they are. In any case, this film makes a pretty effective argument against providing mental therapy for your own family members.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Kick-Ass (2010)

So, 10 years after the debut of Planetary, 24 years after Watchmen and almost 50 years after Marvel introduced it's blend of superheroics and everyday melodrama, someone has finally decided to ask "What if super-heroes existed in the real world?" I know, finally, right? To be fair though, atlhough Millar has touted his comic book Kick-Ass as a superhero deconstruction, it really isn't, and neither is the movie.

The movie starts out that way, though. Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a dorky, comic-book-loving teenager who one day decides to buy a wetsuit off eBay, grab a couple of lead pipes and fight crime. Of course it doesn't go smoothly, and the first time he takes on a couple of carjackers he gets stabbed in the gut and then hit by a car, landing him in the hospital for several months. He suffers nerve damage and his body is riddled with metal plates and pins, but luckily in the Millar-verse this makes you more physically capable, giving you a high tolerance for pain and an elevated ability to take a beating. Consequently he hits the streets again, taking the name Kick-Ass (because he always gets his ass kicked, irony etc) and soon a youtube video of him beating up some street thugs goes viral. A superhero is born.

It's an interesting concept for a story, and I can think of a few ways it could go. They could go the Taxi Driver/Observe and Report route and explore the futility and insanity of someone trying to apply comic book morality to the real world. Alternatively they could do a more light-hearted fable about how real-life heroics are all about helping people, even if it's something small like finding a lost cat or calling the police when you see someone in throuble. Well, just toss all that shit out the window, because if Mark Millar is good at one thing it's coming up with interesting ideas and then fucking them up with violence, swearing, empty nihilism and pointless provocation.

In this case all of the above come in the diminuitive form of Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), a 10 year old girl who has been trained by her father Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) to be a deadly ninja assassin. She does wire-fu, cuts off limbs, shoots a lot of people etc. It's clearly meant to be shocking and if they'd tried for any sort of depth to her character there might be some impact, but here it just seems like hollow nerd-baiting. "Hey comic book geeks, get a load of this! Comic books aren't just for kids anymore!" One prime example of empty shock value is the fact that she cusses all the time. This doesn't make a lot of sense in the context of the character, since Big Daddy's language around her is gentle and paternal (he even uses faux-curses like "gosh") . It just seems like a cheap gag.

To be fair though, some of my favourite scenes were the ones the showed the relationship between Hit Girl and Big Daddy. They were really sweet, and a scene where Big Daddy trains her for the impact of a bullet on kevlar vest was a particular highlight. She gets all the best action sequences and a lot of the best lines; "How do I contact you?" "Call the mayor. He's got a signal he shines in the sky. It's in the shape of a giant cock." Kick-Ass gets pushed into the background whenever she is around. It's pretty clear that Hit Girl was Vaughn's favourite part of the film, so much so that you wonder why they bothered with all the other shit. I'd happily watch a film just about Big Daddy and Hit Girl. I'd happily watch a film just about Kick-Ass. But these aren't two great tastes that taste great together.

I should probably talk about the differences between this film and the comic book. Probably the major deviation is in the character of Big Daddy. His backstory is that he's an ex-cop who was framed by the mob. While he was in jail his wife commits suicide so when he's released he and his daughter become superheros to get revenge. That's the end of it in the movie, but in the comic book it's revealed that he made all that shit up and he's actually just a bored accountant that left his wife, kidnapped his daughter and turned her into a deadly killing machine. That's a pretty dark twist, but I don't know what purpose it serves. I think maybe the movie did the right thing to remove it, even if it does turn the story into something a little more generic.

The other major deviation is surrounding Kick-Ass's love interest. When he is stabbed and beaten, Kick-Ass makes the EMT worker promise not to tell anyone about his costume, so everybody ends up thinking he was found naked in a back alley. Consequently a rumour starts around the school that he's gay. Because he was mugged and raped, get it? Subsequently Kick-Ass pretends to be gay so he can get closer to a girl he likes. He has to watch girly movies, suppress boners when applying fake tans etc. He comes clean at the end, and while in the movie she ends up fucking him right then and there, in the comic she responds a little more realistically and tells him to fuck off. Although I thought the movie actually improved the story structure in a lot of ways, I thought this was handled better in the comic.

The geek community's enthusiastic praise of this film has me a little baffled. They're raving about it to the point that they are criticising Roger Ebert for not liking it. I mean, I know the guy is off the mark sometimes, especially when a film offends his sensibilities, but he's entitled to his own opinion. I guess there's a romanticism to Matthew Vaughn's fuck-the-studios battle against suit-wearing spoilsports, but I think they should save their adoration for a film that uses shock tactics to say something genuine.

I know I'm being hard on this film but I did enjoy it on some level. There were some good gags and the action sequences were fun and well-staged. There were some nice touches, like Nicholas Cage doing an Adam West impression whenever he was in costume. It just seems like a missed opportunity to me. I don't mind if a movie has no real substance, but starting a movie with a good half-hour of narration about the reality of being a superhero, only to spin off into a crazy fantasy with ninjas and jetpacks and giant microwaves and cartoon mobsters.. well it just makes it seem like you don't know what the fuck you are doing. Unless they were going for some sort of post-post-modern, double-ironic superhero story. If so, please disregard everything I said.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Blood and Bone (2010)

The many emotions of Bone.

How awesome is Michael Jai White? Don't bother answering, because clearly the answer is so awesome. Ever since I saw him in Undisputed 2 and that scene that they cut out of Kill Bill Vol. 2 (even though it was totally sweet) I knew he was going to be big. Still, when I heard that he was starring in an underground fighting movie with a bunch of MMA guys I wasn't super excited. You see, I love fight choreography. Realistic fighting is boring; it's one guy twisting another guy into a pretzel on the floor and repeatedly punching him in the head until he gets brain damage. That isn't fun. I want flying kicks and lightning-fast flurries of punches and blocks. Neither do I want the camera shaking around like someone is filming a pub brawl on their mobile phone. I want to see what's going on. Fuck realism. Luckily this one is more like a JCVD film from the early 90s. Specifically Lionheart.

Here MJW plays Bone. Isiah Bone according to imdb but as far as I could tell his first name wasn't mentioned in the movie, so I'm going to pretend that he just has one name, like Madonna. The film opens in a prison shower room and there's a fight between Bone and some prison rapists led by Kimbo Slice. No, you haven't put in Undisputed 2 by mistake, this is just a short, pre-credits sequence to show how badass Bone is (answer: very) and when the film starts proper Bone is fresh out of prison. He takes up a room for rent in a crappy neighbourhood and gets involved with an underground fighting ring. He does not team up with a guy named Detective Jack Blood and solve crimes. It is not that kind of movie. This movie only has room for one hero, and that hero is Michael Jai White.

He does have room for a sidekick though. He teams up with a hyperactive fight announcer named Pinball (Dante Basco) who manages his fights and hypes up the crowd with corny lines like "They call him Bone because that's what he breaks when he hits." I thought this guy was kind of annoying, but he's a nice contrast to Bone's stoic silence and provides a lot of valuable exposition. Bone asks him a lot of questions about an evil fight promoter named James (Eamonn Walker), specifically about his girlfriend Angela (Michelle Belegrin). At first you figure he is just fresh out of prison and got a case of pussy madness (aka the vagina crazies), but a series of flashbacks reveals that it's more complicated than that. Turns out that his cellmate was Angela's husband. James had the hots for Angela so he framed her husband for murder, took away her kids and hooked her on heroin. What an asshole. If that weren't enough James paid to have him shanked in prison, but before he dies Bone promises that when he gets released he'll make sure Angela and their son were taken care of.

James is a pretty good villain. He's one of these guys who talks about codes of honour, quotes historical figures (Genghis Khan) and gets mad when his henchman use curse words, but doesn't mind cheating during fights or using the power of Wang Chung to put a white guy at ease (this must be whitest guy ever, he goes on and on about golf with a pastel sweater knotted around his neck) before suddenly stabbing him with a cane-sword and beating him to death. He's a man of contradictions (ie a hypocrite). He also has dreams of entering a fighter into one of those secret underground fighting tournaments for the ultra-rich run by Julian Sands, and you want him to win too, because Julian Sands' character is a huge racist.

I liked that this movie didn't try to complicate things with extraneous side-plots. They keep things simple. There's a little bit about the family that Bone is staying with. He seduces the mother with his shirtless Tai Chi, but I don't know if they do it (fucking). They had the scene where he comes home from a fight with a few tiny cuts on his face and she patches him up. That's pretty heavy foreplay in this kind of film. But mostly it's Bone beating people up and building his reputation so he can fight James' best fighter. He's this huge black dude named Hammer (Bob Sapp), who grunts and roars, beats his chest like a gorilla and drools on himself. His trainer hypes him up before the match by talking about "teenage girls". Even Julian Sands' character would find this guy a racist caricature. Jeez.

Of course Bone beats him and although he refuses to fight for James he is tricked into fighting world number one "Pretty Boy" Price (Matt Mullins) at James' secret rich-guy fight club. I like that Price takes one look at Bone and decides that he can't be bothered changing and fights him in a business suit. Surrounded by usual assortment of rich assholes (oil shieks, Japanese businessmen, probably Dick Cheney) Bone defeats Price but then taps out, forfeiting the match and losing James' five million dollar entry fee. You'd think James would have really seen this coming. Or maybe he did see it coming, since he decided to pack his cane-sword and a gun, just in case he had to fight Bone (not that they helped). I bet he didn't see getting prison-raped by Kimbo Slice during the end credits. I certainly didn't.

Apart from the fact that he goes to incredible lengths to keep promises to his friends, which is nice (if Bone promises you a ride to the airport you can guarantee he'll be there, even if he has to hospitalise a dozen people) we don't learn that much about Bone. We never find out why he was in prison or why he is so awesome at fighting. I mean, he even takes on the greatest underground fighter in the world and barely breaks a sweat. He also shoots some guys. I was expecting a government spook to appear out of nowhere like in Law Abiding Citizen and say "He's ex-CIA, the best-of-the-best, he's a man you don't want to fuck with and if he's after you then you're as good as dead", etc. Didn't happen though. It was a little frustrating, but it's refreshing that it avoids those cliches. Sometimes it's nice to have a main character who is so mysterious, blowing into town and righting wrongs, like the man with no name. Except that he has a name. Bone.

This one is directed by Ben Ramsey, whose most recent claim to fame is that he wrote Dragonball: Evolution. Hm. Well, I really liked this one anyway. It's a simple story, but it was well-paced and interesting. I liked the way it ended too, with Bone telling the family "I got some things I need to take care of" and walking off into the sunset. The world needs a sequel. There are too many Bone-related questions that must be answered. For instance, why was he in prison? For being too awesome? A sequel, a prequel, I don't care. We know he had a twin brother who was killed in a case of mistaken identity, so maybe they can have a prequel where they team up like in Double Impact. They can call it Bad 2 the Bone. As long as MJW is involved I'll watch the fuck out of it. You'd better do it quickly, because I have a feeling that these Direct-to-Video shackles aren't going to hold MJW for much longer.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Pontypool (2008)

This is K-ZMB, all zombie radio.
More brains, less talk.

I never thought I'd reach a point where I'd be completely sick of zombies and yet here we are. Thanks, internet. Still, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Zombieland and Dead Snow, so I guess I'm still open to a zombie movie or two. As long as it's good. I'd heard a lot of good things about this particular low-budget Canadian horror film, although it wasn't available in Australia until very recently, (what's up with that Canada? I thought we were bros, Commonwealth 4 life) which is why I am reviewing it now instead of back when people actually gave a shit about it.

The film takes place in a small town outside of Ontario called, funnily enough, Pontypool. Actually, to be more specific it takes place inside a radio broadcasting station in Pontypool, and to be even more specific it takes place in an announcer's booth inside the broadcasting station. The booth is populated by a radio shock-jock called Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), who is busy doing his thing when some strange reports start coming in. Stuff about violent riots and roaming mobs who are babbling mindlessly while they tear people to pieces. He does not immediately scream "Zombies!" and run away, which is what I'd do, and instead the film focuses entirely on Mazzy, his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and technician Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) as they try to figure out what the fuck is going on.

I really liked this first half of the film, where Mazzy and his crew are trying to piece things together from scattered police reports and panicked phone calls from their traffic reporter (who only pretends to fly around in a helicopter and is also a pedophile for some reason). There's a great moment where a BBC correspondant calls them up live on-air, trying to get some information out of them, but they know even less than he does. They are also visited by a GP, Dr Mendez (Hrant Alianak), who was present at the initial outbreak of the infection and gives them his crazy theory about the zombie virus. When the zombies show up I got a little less interested, but it turns out there's not much blood, violence or cheap jump scares. For most of the film they are huddled somewhere communicating by hand-written notes, sign language and broken French.

This brings me to the interesting twist they put in the formula, which I wasn't going to spoil but I guess I have to because otherwise I've got fuck-all to talk about. It turns out that the zombie infection is not spread by any traditional means; it's spread by spoken language. Certain words in the English language are "infected", and once the victim hears one they start talking nonsense and repeat the same phrases over and over, like they are having a stroke. It's genuinely creepy. I'm not sure they thought the idea through completely because the last act seems a little scattered and confusing, and everyone ends up going out Return of the Living Dead style. Apparently it's based on a book by Anthony Burgess and I don't know if things are explained a little better there.

Naturally there's a lot of subtext to the idea of a shock-jock radio announcer dealing with angry mobs incited into violence by the spoken word. They also deal with the idea that the characters are torn between a duty to inform the public and the possibility that the best thing for them to do is shut the fuck up. When the military put out a warning over the radio in French (only English is infected which is pretty interesting in itself) they translate it only to discover that it ends with "Do not translate this message." There are some interesting ideas here but they don't beat you over the head with it like Romero.

I don't have a lot to say about the other crap. Acting is great and it's cool to see McHattie carry a film after so many minor roles. Camera work is surprisingly engaging for such a confined space, without ever falling victim to the zombie virus that has been rampaging through the film industry for the last ten years aka Michael Bay disease. Symptoms include shaky camera-work, over-editing and a tendency to punctuate every tense scene with lots of flashy effects and loud noises. Once confined to a small niche of thriller/horror films, cheap digital editing software has seen this virus spread to other genres and take on more virulent forms. Now everyone is shaking the camera around like they're erasing an Etch-a-Sketch, only instead of erasing a line-drawing of a penis it's erasing the audience's ability to comprehend what the fuck is going on. I think there's a movie in that, but until someone realises my amazing vision I think you should check out Pontypool.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl (2009)

A typical frame of Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl

This is another film from the director of Tokyo Gore Police, Yoshihiro Nishimura, and if you've seen that film (or even read the title) then you've probably got a pretty good idea of what to expect from this one. Here he teams up with Naoyuki Tomomatsu (the director of high-school satire/zombie flick Stacy) to create a supernatural high-school romance that is refreshingly free of sparkling vampires and abstinence propaganda. Indeed Stephenie Meyer's naive Mormon bubble-head would pop like a balloon if she saw this film, and as entertaining a sight as that would be it still wouldn't be as gory as this film. Make no mistake: this film is bloody.

Here in the West, Valentine's Day is just another excuse for mega-corporations to suck money from the pockets of men everywhere. In Japan, however, it's a special day where girls give chocolates to the guys they like. Consequently hunky dreamboat Mizushima (Takumi Saito) is given a chocolate by the shy new girl Monami (Yukie Kawamura). It has a special ingredient however, and when he eats it he starts tripping balls and sees people as walking circulatory systems. When he wakes up later in the school nurse's office he disovers that Monami is a vampire and the chocolate, which was filled with her own blood, has turned him into a half-vampire so they can live together for all eternity.

Unfortunately he is also being wooed by the spoiled, popular Keiko (Eri Otoguro), daughter of the meek and wimpy Vice Principal. What Keiko doesn't know is that her father is actually a Kabuki Dr. Frankenstein in his spare time, running a mad science laboratory in the basement of the school with the help of the sexy school nurse. His experiments on kidnapped students produce nothing but grotesque failures until he discovers the secret ingredient, a drop of Monami's vampire blood. After Keiko is murdered by Monami in a rooftop accident, he uses the opportunity to bring her back to life as a Frankenstein's monster, setting the stage for a bloody final battle on top of Tokyo Tower.

I did like the way this film turned the typical high-school love triangle on it's head. The titular fight may be over Mizushima's love, but he wants nothing to do with either of these girls. As he narrates later in the film: "And this is how the battle over love began between Vampire Girl and Frankenstein Girl. By the way, has anyone considered my feelings?" Although we end up siding with Monami by default, she's also completely insane, cheerfully murdering her rivals and anyone else who crosses her. She is also helped by her hunchbacked assistant Igor, posing as the school janitor (I don't know why he's the vampire's assistant and not Dr. Frankenstein's) and his existence is acknowledged as the sad fate of Monami's past boyfriends. It's like Let the Right One In by way of early Peter Jackson.

Although there's nothing that matches the pissing chair from Tokyo Gore Police, the film features a lot of entertaining grotesqueries. Dr. Frankenstein's vampire-powered surgery enables him to create freaks with oddities such as head-mounted propellers made from severed limbs. The school nurse gets the Bride of Frankenstein treatment, with each breast adorned by eyeballs and severed fingers. Even Igor shows up during the final battle wearing Samurai armour made from human bones and swinging a skull-crushing rib-cage like the Master of the Flying Guillotine. There's also a great fight during a flashback sequence, between Monami's mother (played by Eihi Shiina from Tokyo Gore Police) and St Francis Xavier with his "sumo from hell" armed with with blades for arms and a helmet-mounted cannon.

There's probably more of a focus on comedy here than inTokyo Gore Police or even Machine Girl. High school romance cliches are mocked with some nicely ironic use of terrible Japanese pop songs, especially during a blood-shower scene that makes the one in Tokyo Gore Police look tame and realistic. Japanese high school subcultures are also ridiculed in tasteless, Troma-esque fashion, such as the emo wrist-cutting girls (a subject already tackled in Tokyo Gore Police) who participate in the 13th Nationwide High School Student Wrist Cut Rally, the reigning champ disqualified after she accidentally cuts off her own arm.

The most uncomfortable part of the film for me was the Ganguro girls (a peculiar Japanese subculture in which girls get dark tans and wear extravagant makeup as a way rebelling against conformity), which have been exaggerated into Afro-American obsessed, Obama-quoting, spear-carrying Sambo caricatures in blackface makeup. Oh, Japan. You so crazy. Also, Ju-On director Takashi Shimizu makes an appearance as a Chinese teacher (managing to work in a plug for his film series) whose exposure to auto-emissions and factory pollution has given him super-powered lungs.

Some of the comedy may have been a little squirm-inducing, but I still liked this one. It wasn't as meandering as Tokyo Gore Police and had a shorter length that seemed just about right. Obviously you have to be in a very specific mindset to enjoy these films and willing to forgive a multitude of sins, but they seem to be getting a little better with each iteration. I'm not sure how much longer it will be until they run out of steam or I lose interest, but I'm looking forward to the next one.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Raw Force (1982)

Even a Nazi biker rape scene can be rendered
hilarious through the addition of heart-print boxers

A lot of people, myself especially, tend to romanticise the exploitation films of the late 70s/early 80s. Generally they were bait-and-switch routines that preyed on the public's unquenchable thirst for blood and tits. Even the best of them fail to live up to the promise of their often-awesome theatrical posters and, truth be told, the vast majority are just flat-out boring. Raw Force is one of those rare exploitation films that delivers, taking a kitchen-sink appoach that delivers a little bit of everything: zombie samurai, cannibal monks, kung fu masters and a whole lot of titties, all executed with a level of competence that frequently dips into lols-ville. Delicious.

The film revolves around a human-trafficking ring run by Mr. Speer, a man in a white suit with a Hitler moustache and terrible German accent (subtle). As the film opens he and his team of mercenaries are taking a load of Filipina prostitutes to the mysterious Warrior Island. There he is met by a group of cackling monks (wearing tattered robes straight out of Tombs of the Blind Dead) who exchange the girls for a couple of baskets of jade. Or rather one basket, the monks reduce the sum after they reject one of the girls for not having enough junk in the trunk. You may think they're a bit picky for celibate, island-dwelling monks, but it turns out that these lovely ladies aren't for fuckin', they're for eatin'. They believe that eating female flesh gives them the power to raise the dead, specifically the bodies of disgraced martial artists that have banished themselves to Warrior Island. Or something.

Cut to three moustachioed guys from the Burbank Karate Club taking a trip on an extremely shabby cruise line. Since the ship is packed with martial artists, all keen to visit Warrior Island, the cruise manager (an extremely annoying woman) decides to change their itinerary and make a brief stopover there. The ship's cook/kung fu master Chin balks at the idea, saying that the island is forbidden to everyone except "disgraced martial artists" and setting foot on it will incure the wrath of Buddha. Maybe the local tourist authority shouldn't hand out Warrior Island brochures then, even if they do appear to be mostly blank.

During a stopover the passengers take in some of the local sights (kickboxing, cheap markets), while a couple of Burbank Karate Clubbers split off from the main group and head to a brothel. Subsequently Speer and his men bust into the joint disguised as policemen, rounding up a bunch of girls to sell off to the cannibal monks. The two men escape as a gaggle of topless women stream out of the upstairs window and across the rooftops. Indeed there are a lot of topless women in this film, but the most egregious example is when several minutes of jiggle footage is haphazardly edited into a bar fight, such that the stripper nonchalantly dances away while the bar is trashed around her.

The film's love of tits and bizarre, anarchic spirit is most explified during an extended comedy sequence in the middle of the film. The individual bits aren't funny at all, but they are so random and ri-goddamn-diculous that they gradually build momentum until the movie is a freight train of awesome. The scene revolves around a birthday celebration for some random character who is never mentioned again, and takes place in a crappy wood-panelled room that looks like a family den circa 1977. The movie cuts between the following gags, usually involving unknown characters who only appear in this one scene:
  • An older woman pimps out her friend to a guy only for him to start ranting about how modelling is the devil's work ("No Betty, the devil's no joke")
  • A fat, balding bartender hits on a girl by smashing a block of ice with his head and then asking "Want to have dinner tonight, doll-baby?"
  • A woman gets a birthday cake smooshed all over her boobs and has to take a shower.
  • A tall woman and a short man try to have sex in a cramped bathroom.
  • A woman paralytic state of drunkeness is casually sexually assaulted by a pervert.
  • A clumsy martial artist knocks over a table where a family are in the middle of a spaghetti dinner.
The drunken merriment is interrupted by a bunch of Speer's mercenaries, who are dressed like a Village People cover band. Speer heard that the two guys at the brothel were on a cruise to Warrior Island, so he decides to kill everybody on the ship. One of our heroes gives a death-swirly to a Nazi biker in heart-print boxer shorts while Chin gets into a swordfight with a pirate in a midriff-baring vest and glam makeup. Eventually the pirates set the cruise ship on fire and Chin, the ship's Captain (played by Cameron Mitchell), the cruise-line owner and the Burbank Karate Club and a female SWAT officer named Cookie all escape onto a life-raft, I guess leaving the rest of the passengers to die.

They wash up on Warrior Island anyway, and after a gun-fight with a bazooka-toting Speer and his men they are captured by the cannibal monks. This is where the much-ballyhooed zombie warriors come into play, as the monks use their cannibal powers to raise up a bunch of samurai and ninja zombies. There's no real consistency, obviously; sometimes the samurai jump and flip about, other times they shamble along in slow motion (I don't mean they move slowly either, whenever the zombies are shown they use a cheesy slow motion filter effect). Anyway, they defeat the zombies, Speer gets eaten by pirahanas, and they fly away in his plane. The film ends with a title card: "To Be Continued..." Oh, I wish.

There's a lot to enjoy about this one. The kung fu fights and gun battles aren't fantastic but it's hard to get bored when there's hilariously awful dialog like "Go ahead Cookie, he doesn't have to know you're on the LA SWAT team". Also, tits. I enjoyed it a lot. I don't know why they gave it such a generic title, though. It would probably have been more successful they'd called it Burbank Karate Club vs The Zombie Samurai of Warrior Island. Maybe the theatre's marquee space was extremely limited.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Up in the Air (2009)

There was a lot of backlash surrounding this movie's Best Picture nomination, so I thought I'd check it out. It's also didn't hurt that it was written/directed by Jason Reitman, and I liked Thankyou For Smoking and Juno. Yeah, I liked Juno motherfucker, you want to make something of it? After watching this one I can see why people think it's not Best Picture material (not based on a book, no race issues, not about the Holocaust, no blue aliens) but I'm not upset that it was nominated either. This isn't a Shakespeare-in-Love-style scenario. You might say my opinion on it is Up in the Air, but you'd be wrong. I thought was pretty good.

The movie is about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) an asshole who his hired by cowardly companies to fly all around the country and fire people. He calls himself a 'transition specialist' and sells pre-packaged bullshit lines about unemployment being life-changing opportunity. He also has a side job doing motivational speaking, spreading his personal philosophy about having no attachment to possessions or people. He spends as little time as possible at his crappy, sterile apartment, he's obsessed with frequent flyer miles, fancy hotels, hire cars and shit, and that's the way he likes it. He even has a fuckbuddy with a similar outlook on life (Vera Farmiga) that he hooks up with on the road whenever their paths cross.

Things change when his company hires Natalie Keener (get it, cause she's keen, also played by Anna Kendrick), a fresh college graduate who has harnessed the dark powers of the internet to make their job even more impersonal and fucked up. Knowing that her video-conferencing firing system will make him obsolete, Clooney is forced to take her on the road and show her the ropes. Naturally she is an inexperienced flyer and has a big clunky ol' suitcase and packs her own pillows (lol, women) so he teaches her about the minutia of travel and the time-saving benefits of racism. At the same time she teaches him about the importance of love (not physically, Clooney has that part covered with Farmiga). They laugh. They love. They crash a tech conference dinner and watch a not-so-young Young MC performing Bust a Move. It's better than this makes it seem.

They could have probably got a whole film out of that, but about halfway through they bring in some pretty great stuff where Clooney attends his estranged sister's wedding. It's really awkward and it does a great job of showing the ramifications of his no-strings philosophy. There's a scene where he has to talk his brother-in-law out of his cold feet, and by some miracle it isn't completely forced and cheesy. The only part that seemed a bit Hollywood Bullshitty was when Clooney runs out in the middle of his keynote speech at a huge conference so he can fly across the country to visit his fuckbuddy-come-girlfriend, but even that scene is deflated a few moments later. I also liked that by the end of the film Clooney has started to question himself but he doesn't do a complete reversal of his world-view. What I liked most of all is that there are a lot of contradictions and hypocracies about Clooney's character that could have easily been italicised and/or double underlined Haggis-style but aren't.

They also keep things grounded and resist the temptation for wackiness, even though there are a lot of talented comedy actors in minor roles, like Danny McBride as his brother-in-law, Jason Bateman (with a beard!) as his boss and Zach Galifianakis (also with a beard but that's normal for him) as an employee on the chopping block. There's also a cameo from Sam Elliot in his usual wise cowboy role, except that here he's also a pilot. It would have been cool if they'd put a pilot hat on top of a cowboy hat, or created a fusion of the two styles, but at least he's still got his sweet moustache. The three main leads all do a great job and probably have a lot to do with why this film works. Also, with someone other than 2 time People's Sexiest Man Alive winner George Clooney in the lead role the audiences would have rebelled against the unbelievable asshollery of the protagonist and burned down the movie theater.