Thursday, December 31, 2009


As promised, here is the last of my spiel on Fantastic Fest. I already have my ticket for next year, and I hope that then it doesn't take me three months! Happy New Year everyone.

METROPIA (Sweden, shot in English, )
Strongly Recommended

Metropia should be seen by anyone who’s a fan of dystopian weirdness. The filmmakers have managed to create a unique and fascinating world of mad corporate conspiracies and human eccentricity. It’s a cerebral world, and it’s no accident that all the characters are animated with thin, doll-like bodies and giant heads.

Roger is a banal man living a banal existence, inhabiting a Kafkaesque near-future world where all the cities of Europe are connected by super-fast metro trains. You can get from Copenhagen to Rome in twenty minutes, which sounds great to international travelers like myself, but in this world you’d probably step out of the station to find that the Trevi Fountain has been paved over to make room for a shampoo plant. Roger marches through this world in a sort of well-mannered depression, with his only endearing quarks being that he has a crush on a shampoo model and harbors a general paranoia about sinister things going on in the metro. Because of his refusal to use the tube, he rides his bike to his unfulfilling job at a call center, passing shuttered shops that no one has visited since the metro began speeding under them. At first, Roger’s odd conspiracy theories seem only a shade or two from normal—then he starts to hear voices. They tell him his wife might be cheating, they tell him to buy things, they tell him to keep the cogs of capitalism going.

Then he sees her: Nina, the woman from the shampoo bottle. He knows her well, because he stares at every morning as the water rushes down over him and he rubs shampoo onto his head. We suspect that sometimes he does more than look. Roger is bald and doesn’t need shampoo, but he compulsively buys it anyway, maybe out of his infatuation, or perhaps because of something more sinister. In a moment of uncharacteristic passion he follows his blonde dream girl, meets her, and gets drawn into a conspiracy so bizarre you wouldn’t even believe me if I described it.

While the bleak paleness of the palette doesn’t work in Van Dieman’s Land (see below) here it reinforces the odd, half-lit quality of the underground world. If, like me, you have always had a certain horror of subways, this shadowy wan light will evoke the same feelings of paranoia and suspicion that Roger feels. The oppressive atmosphere and black humor are the best parts of the production, and make up for a plot that plods rather than races to its conclusion, and never totally gels. I didn’t feel the length personally, since I was drawn in by the oddity of the world, but some may become disinterested in its quiet humor.

What makes the film so interesting are its visuals and its ideas, which manage to pull the viewer along through a plot that is not particularly intriguing. I’d recommend it strongly, but know that you’re watching it for the ideas and surprising conspiracies, rather than an involving story.

VAN DIEMEN’S LAND (Australia, No US Release Date)
Strongly Recommended (Warning: Extremely Intense)

In 1822, Irishman Alexander Pearce and seven other convicts escaped the prison colony of Macquarie Harbour and made their way into the wilds of Van Diemen’s Land, present-day Tazmania. They escaped what was arguably the most brutal penal colony in the British Empire—a place where convicts slept in mud-filled lean-tos, and every morning were marched shoeless up a mountain under armed guard to cut Huron Pine trees for the British shipbuilding industries. Afterward, they would either have to drag the large trunks down the mountain or tie them together and ride them down the rivers as rafts. Often, convicts did all this in chains.

Unbeknownst to the escapees, they are headed for a fate far worse. Driven into the interior of the island by soldiers, they must contend with mountain ranges, icy rivers, snowstorms, and worst of all, the gnawing silence of hunger. After a few days without food, it’s clear what they have to do.

Most films about cannibalism dwell on the lurid aspects of the practice, but thankfully, Van Dieman’s Land takes a more cerebral approach. This isn’t a movie about murder, it’s a movie about food. It’s clear that Director Jonathan Auf Der Heide understands this from one of the first shots of the movie: a pair of hands pulling at a grisly piece of meat. We hear the crackle of the fat, the smack of chewing lips, see a pair of filthy fingers sopping up the grease with a piece of bread. The close, almost over-personal shot is unappetizing. Even when the camera pulls out to reveal that we are watching a British soldier eating a piece of beef, the message is clear: in this place, eating is not for pleasure, it’s for survival.

In the end, this sense of cannibalism actually makes the film more, rather than less terrifying. This film doesn’t really match the criteria above—it’s neither wild nor wonderful, unless you count the wildness of nature of display—it’s a horror flick through-and-through, one starring human monsters.

The crew mad accuracy a goal of this project, from the costuming and dialogue to the use of Gaelic for the Irish characters. Most of that is spot-on, but what functions so well about this film is its visceral authenticity, the way can feel the bite when the convicts cross freezing rivers or smell the foulness of their greasy bodies. This realism stems from Auf Der Heide’s apparent philosophy that his actors should suffer as much as the original convicts did. He shot the movie in the Tasmanian wilderness, convincing the actors to forge rivers and walk through the snow while dressed in rags. All that abuse carries over to the screen, where every shiver and moan looks genuine.

That same eye for human misery makes the killings shockingly effective. Fantastic Fest audiences are infamous for cheering after a particularly violent death scene, especially in horror movies. Laughter and applause are not uncommon. By contrast, every murder in Van Dieman’s Land was greeted with silence. These murder scenes are horrifying in their realism, in their cruelty, in their sheer biological accuracy. In one particularly disturbing scene, a man who has had his skull split with an ax convulses, screaming, for nearly ninety seconds while the killers stand around him, unsure of what to do next. The product of their own violence frightens them into inaction.

The film’s color palette is less effective. Auf Der Heide uses a filter for most of the shots that drains much of the rich color from the lush Tasmanian forest, which makes the scenes seem more bleak, but one wonders, given the material, if he really needed any help in that regard. Washing out some of the color has become a well-used technique in historical film, made famous by Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, which seemed to say: see, this is authentic because it looks like old film. This (overused) technique looks alright in World War II movies, since we’re used to accessing the period through faded film prints and photos, but it makes little or no sense in the context of the 19th Century, where film had not yet been invented. It is possible that the color muting—which becomes more prominent throughout the film—serves as an indication that the men are coming closer and closer to starvation, but I’m not sure. Keeping track of how deadened the color palette gets can be a tricky thing, since once the audience has to mentally track the degree to which the color has washed out. It doesn’t help that the movie is a bit on the long side and drags in places, especially since it’s entirely made up of footage of men walking. If the Frodo sections of LotR pissed you off, you might want to skip this one.

I could keep writing about this movie for hours, talking about how the sound of musket shots were masterfully recreated, how the men carry their very British Politics of Empire with them into the wilderness, the prejudice against the Irish members of the group (the majority English always seem to vote to eat the Irishmen first), and the extremely tense final twenty minutes, but I’ll leave you to discover those things yourself.

STINGRAY SAM (US, Online Distribution at ; showing at Alamo Drafthouse)

If you’re a fan of social commentary, westerns, musical comedy, and Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide, I would strongly suggest you check out Stingray Sam.

Series creator/star Cory McAbee specifically designed Stingray Sam to work on all screen sizes, from iPod to a full theater, and has succeeded to a great degree. Each ten-minute episode has roughly the same elements, and features a comedy sketch, some animation, and a song and dance number. It’s a good format, though without doubt the most successful portions are the animation sequences, which evoke Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python days crossed with a Douglas Adams-style narration performed by David Hyde Pierce.

In brief, the plot follows galactic ne’er-do-wells Stingray Sam and the Quasar Kid, former inhabitants of a prison planet, as they pay their debt to society by rescuing a little girl from galactic despot Fredward. (Who was created in a scientific experiment combining he genes of two male scientists named Frederick and Edward.) To say more than that would spoil things, especially when you can see the first two episodes free at

Follow that link and check it out (both episodes, since it really finds its stride in the second one), I almost guarantee you’ll like it. If you decide to Mount up with Sam and Quasar for the long haul, you’ll meet bored dancing girls, sadistic bureaucrats, genetic oddities, incredulous scientists, convicts in mascot costumes, badly-designed robot suits, and eventually meet and fall in love with the smooth and mellow flavor of Liberty Chew Chewing Tobacco.

Just see if you don’t.

KENNY BEGINS (Sweden, No US Release Date)

Fans of stupidity humor: I have met your new God. Easily my favorite of the “weird cinema” movies I saw, Kenny Begins is the Godfather of idiotic-but-lovable-leading-male movies. Kenny Starfighter has been a Galaxy Hero in Training for years, the sci-fi equivalent of that cousin you have who’s been in college for seven years. If he fails one more semester he’ll suffer a fate worse than death—being forced to work in his family’s hair salon (and when you see the flowing blonde mullets they have, you know what a terrible fate that is). Hoping to pull his grades up by making a clean arrest, Kenny follows über-villain Rutger Oversmart through a black hole and crash-lands on Earth. Teaming up with a couple of high school kids (a geek who can barely believe his luck at developing superpowers from an ancient artifact and the girl he secretly pines for) Kenny races the clock to outsmart Oversmart, and finally graduate the academy! He’ll probably find some time to eat ice lollies too.

Kenny Begins is the prequel to Swedish mini-series Kenny Starfighter which must have been outrageously funny if it was only half as hilarious as this. The heart of the comedy comes from Kenny’s vulnerability; he knows he’s a washout and a failure, but the kids don’t, and he tries to carry off his bumbling heroics with enough aplomb to keep his young companions in awe. Of course, these kids are in high school and know all about faking confidence, so they see right through him.

Hey Adult Swim generation? You’ve gotta see this movie. This is totally in your arena and will get you spouting Kenny’s nonsensical catch phrases (Ischlo Pischlo! Woolie Boolie!) for years to come.


UNDER THE MOUNTAIN (New Zealand, No US Release Date)
Recommended for Parents with Tweens

I always find it difficult to get into a movie like Under the Mountain. I sort of skipped the whole “teen horror” phase, and went directly from kids horror to Michael Crichton and Preston/Child. Let me tell ya: after you’ve seen velociraptors eat Henry Wu’s intestines while he’s still alive, Goosebumps just doesn’t do it for you anymore.

Even so, the movie is pretty likable. Two fraternal twins with parental problems (dead mother, grieving father) spend a summer at their cousin’s house while their dad cools off. Meanwhile, they get mixed up with some creepy neighbors in the house across the lake, who are shape-shifting aliens trying to raise the old ones from the depths of Auckland’s extinct volcanoes. If the twins want to stop them, they’ll have to pair with Sam Neill, the last of a race of galactic lawgivers who want the creepy Wilberforce family contained or eliminated. Saving the world takes a lot of sneaking around creepy houses, diving down gooey alien tunnels, and, in the movie’s best sequence, a short glimpse of the delightfully Lovecraftian horrors that stir in the bottom of the volcanic chambers. A lot of the fun comes from Neill chewing the scenery, spitting it out and chewing it again. It’s clear he had a blast on set.

It’s a damn fine movie for an early teen horror/thriller, and if you’ve got kids about this age, or even nephews and nieces, it’s a hell of a lot better than taking them to Disney’s latest failure to capture family-friendly action on film. It’s not a classic like Goonies or as frightening as the introduction to The Witches, but you could do a lot worse at the multiplex.

See It If You’re Interested, But You’ll Never Get the Chance (Estonia/Russia, No Distribution Except Festival Circuit)

Apparently the Russian company that funded Buratino, Son of Pinnochio is never going to let it get released. My sympathies are with the director, Rasmus Marivoo. If you’re out there Mr. Marivoo, I just wanted to tell you that I really liked your movie. It was entertaining and made me laugh, and the songs stuck with me, particularly the villain, Karabas Barabas’s song and dance number.

For the curious: Buratino, Sun of Pinnochio is an Estonian rock opera about a young man who was born after his mother wished for a child. Little did she know that child would come about from a sentient splinter that flies up her skirts like Tinkerbell and knocks her up. Five minutes later, the doctors deliver a wooden child from her swollen belly, and (after his bark falls off) he looks pretty normal. At least, as normal as you can look in a world where Clockwork Orange-style youth gangs roam the streets in gas masks and spiked jackets. As a teenager, Buratano and his band/youth gang sally out from Badville on lowride bikes to hold up the residents of Goodville, including town honcho Karabas Barabas, who wants to catch the wooden boy for sinister experiments. The plot thickens, as plots are wont to do, when Buratino falls hard for Barabas’s cute blue-haired daughter.

Marivoo carries all this off with a great deal of fun, especially for something he struggled to put together on a small budget and under pressure from Russian backers. This world runs on Looney Tunes physics, with people looking long distances by shaping their hands like binoculars or brushing themselves off after an explosion hurls them hundreds of yards. Yes, it contains villains, and nasty police, and poverty, but all of these things are silly to the point of non-threatening. For example, though the police frequently shoot at poor Buratino, they do so with what can be only described as Zap Guns.

Rasmus Marivoo, your film may not get distribution, but I will always talk about “this insane Estonian rock opera” I saw once. I think you’re a great filmmaker, and I hope you have better luck next time.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

What I Saw At Fantastic Fest Part 3: Rip-Snorting Action Edition!

I'm determined to get the Fantastic Fest posts done by the end of the year... so keep on the lookout for the conclusion in the next week. Now, feast your eyes on the cornucopia of throat kicks and head shots below:

MANDRILL (Chile, No US Release Date)

I’ve always believed that an action film makes its bones in the first five minutes, and Mandrill proves it’s serious right off the bat with a series of shakedowns ripped from the opening of Diamonds Are Forever. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not, since this is a homage that improves upon the original. See, Mandrill is a spoof, well, at least kind of... you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a comedy throughout the first scene, until ninety seconds later when Marko Zaror leaps into the air, flips like a gymnast and kicks a pistol out of a henchman’s hand.

Without any wires. That’s right, Zaror does this crap for real.

Mandrill was my favorite film at this year’s festival. I was enthusiastic about many of the movies I caught, but it was only Mandrill that made me run out and rent the director’s earlier films. Chilean director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza and action star Marko “The Latin Dragon” Zaror are a hell of a find, and I also would encourage you to see their earlier films, Kiltro and Mirageman.

Mandrill is a hitman who takes the toughest targets in South America, but we get the impression that his real job is just being cool. He drives hot cars while listening to funky music in his cassette player, he propositions beautiful women with alarming directness, and he gambles at swanky casinos. Mandrill is a man of few words, which is a welcome change in a decade that’s been overshadowed by Tarantino’s garrulous mobsters and their copycats. If our hero opens his mouth, it’s either to take a contract, interrogate a lead or seduce a woman. Often, he gets by on sheer presence alone—at one point a bellhop tells him he’ll need a tuxedo to play at a high-stakes table. He tips the kid a hundred and pulls off the hop’s clip-on bow tie. Problem solved.

The plot is fairly simple: Mandrill takes a contract to assassinate a man with the classic mafia sobriquet “The Cyclops,” a one-eyed kingpin that our hero suspects of killing his parents. Unfortunately for Mandrill, it’s a well-known fact that all kingpins have beautiful and enchanting daughters. Though most women in Mandrill’s life are disposable (sometimes literally, you’ll see what I mean) he’s so driven to possess this beautiful young lady that he does the unthinkable—interacts with her on a human level. As his hyper- suave persona begins to fracture and we see the elements of his past that shaped him (which are thankfully hilarious rather than psychoanalytical) Mandrill must keep his cool while engaging in a cat-and-mouse game with The Cyclops, his daughter, and more henchmen than you can shake a magnum at.

The movie wouldn’t work if it weren’t for two things—Zaror’s excellent comic timing and his incredible physicality. Action/Comedies usually fail because comedians make poor action stars and vice versa. Had Espinoza and Zaror (they shot the film mostly without a script, so I credit them both along with the entire cast and crew) tried to get the audience to take Mandrill seriously it would have been a dud. The plot is just too silly, the concept of the “cool agent” far too played out. Likewise, if he’d skimped on the action, the movie wouldn’t be anything but mildly funny. Instead, they managed to shoot the gap and produce a powerhouse of a movie that’s lighthearted in its violent mayhem, yet still satisfies our need for flying bullets and roundhouse kicks.

Seriously guys, I want Mandrill on a shirt. Marko Zaror has become my new favorite action hero, and he deserves all the accolades that’ll come his way in the next few years.

DISTRICT 13: ULTIMATUM (France, No US Release Date)
Strongly Recommended

District 13: Ultimatum is stylish, fun, and trés français. Like Mandrill, the District 13 series is one of the international holdouts of old-school action films, the kind where stars do their own stunts as the director gives the studio insurance agents the finger. “Damn the skyrocketing premiums,” they say. “We’ve got a movie to shoot.”

Like the original, District B-13, Ultimatum takes place in a near-future Paris where the government has decided to deal with the city’s endemic crime by walling up the slums. , because it gives parkour expert and freedom fighter Leto (David Belle) and his odd-couple ally, undercover policeman and martial arts master Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) free license to stick it to the man by running up walls and kneeing dudes in the face. The plot is pretty much a retread from the first one with some Bush-era War on Terror references, but does that really matter? This film has everything that was good about the original—the amazing free-running, the action, and the predictable but enjoyable twists—plus a bigger budget that really cranks up the spectacle. In one particularly explosive scene, the heroes rampage through the third floor of an office building in a sedan, plowing down walls, doors, and a half-dozen unfortunate henchmen.

While the first movie mostly showcased Belle’s extraordinary parkour skills, the sequel focuses on Raffaelli’s cabinet of roundhouse kicks, short punches, and Judo throws. But his fighting skills aren’t what makes him fun to watch, Raffaelli’s real talent lies in the bizarre comedic turns that this franchise requires of him when Damien dons his signature disguises.

Unfortunately, as good as this sequel is it doesn’t quite capture the breathless, dynamic, race-the-clock energy of the original’s third act. The villains here are also quite bland, replacing flamboyant drug lords with staid, starch-collar bureaucrats.

I never saw many French action films until this year, but all I know is that the more of them I see, the more I love French action movies. They’re generally smaller and tighter than the American shoot-em-ups, and have the guts to go down roads that US studios would consider too risky. There’s one particular sequence in this movie that no square-jawed American star would risk his reputation with, fearing immortality on YouTube. Raffaelli carries it off with aplomb.

THE REVENANT (US, On the Festival Circuit, Look for it on DVD)
Recommended (Strongly Recommended for Zombie/Vampire Fans)

I can only think of two things worse than your best friend dying in Iraq—either dying in Iraq yourself, or having your best friend knock on your door after he’s been killed in Iraq. In this movie, friends Bart and Joey have do deal with both of these scenarios, Bart the former, Joey the latter. Not only do the pair have to deal with the repercussions to their own friendship arising from Bart’s ghoulish resurrection, and the impact on Bart’s poor girlfriend, they need to figure out how to acquire enough blood to keep him from rotting. Unfortunately for these Google-trained Gen-Yers, there isn’t any Wikipedia entry on how to do that.

Stephanie Meyer, take note--this is what guys would do if they were turned into the immortal undead. And by that I mean: heisting blood banks, stockpiling weaponry, and roaming around LA like the Boondock Saints, gunning down every criminal they come across and drinking their blood.

This isn’t an action/comedy/bromance though—it has blood and bite, and is far less about friends in a weird situation and more about the common male experience of blundering through life directionless, figuring out the rules through trial and error. It’s an American Shaun of the Dead with a lot more blood and a bit of mean streak. After all, in this film it’s the heroes that have become monsters.

The third act is perhaps too dark for its own good, but also contains a few moments of pure brilliance. It’s then that things get completely out of hand and the ramifications of Bart’s condition reach beyond his limited social circle. That kind of widescreen view of the world is what sets The Revenant apart from lesser entertainments.

Ultimately The Revenant succeeds because of its inventiveness and it’s logical progression. Characters often find creative solutions to problems (including the most innovative use of a vibrator in the history of cinema) but those solutions always make sense. Likewise, the plot twists stretch the bounds of imagination without rupturing the suspension of disbelief. It’s one of the few vampire/zombie films I’ve ever seen that’s merge horror, comedy and geopolitics while still making a movie that’s fun to watch.

If you’ve got the stomach for the blood and the cynicism for the humor, this one’s a sure bet. It’s sure to be a cult classic in zombie/vampire circles.

FIREBALL (Thailand, No US Release Date)
See It If You’re Interested

There is a part of me that wants to like Fireball oh-so-badly. It’s the same part of me that loves wounded animals and ugly children.

Fireball is a throwback to the rash of “combat sports” movies that appeared in the 1970s after the advent of Rollerball, with the shtick this time being an underground league of full-contact, Muy Thai Basketball.

You can pretty much imagine the plot from there. Hero gets out of prison, finds his brother in a coma, turns out little bro was playing combat basketball to make ends meet for the family, guy who KOed him is a big asshole on the other team, hero swears revenge, etc. Other than some minor character development that goes into each team member (mostly so we feel bad when they’re killed) that’s basically it, but it’s enough for a film like this. After all, the movie is almost entirely cast with stuntmen, so we’re not going to see a lot of acting chops on display.

The problem is we don’t see a lot of martial arts on display either. Fireball is shot with so many shaky, close-up quick-cuts ala Jason Bourne that I could hardly tell who was elbow-dropping who. Even worse, since the teams don’t wear anything resembling uniforms, it’s almost impossible to see who’s winning. My efforts to follow the ball from hand to hand put me in mind of a Hogwarts Seeker trying to catch the Golden Snitch. It’s the opposite of Mandrill and District 13, wherein athleticism is always highlighted by flattering cinematography. Here we have guys doing incredible stunts, but we never have more than a half-second to appreciate them.

Listen up directors: Stop using shaky cam and rapid close-up cuts for action scenes. I don’t want to feel like I’m in a fight scene. I came here to watch the movie, not participate.

Which isn’t to say it’s totally terrible. By all means, there’s some coolness here. One match where the audience throws lead pipes to their favorite team is particularly memorable, but overall, I’d rather just watch Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior again.

Now that’s good Muy Thai.

THE LEGEND IS ALIVE (Vietnam, No US Release Date)
See It If You’re Interested

The Legend Is Alive, a film about a mentally handicapped martial arts expert, has me split. On the one hand, it’s one of the only martial arts films I’ve ever seen that touched me on an emotional level, but on the other hand, the fact that I actually felt for the hero undercut my enjoyment of the film’s action scenes.

Confused? Check this out:

The film follows Lee (Dustin Nguyen), a boy who grows up in postwar Vietnam, where a dose of Agent Orange has kept him from progressing mentally past the age of ten. Kicked out of school for failing to progress, his mother takes him home to the martial arts school that she runs and formally educates him in the fine art of being able to kill with his bare hands. See trouble brewing?

Sadly, mothers don’t last forever, and when Lee’s poor devoted mom dies, he decides that he’s going to take her ashes to America so that she can be with the father he never knew. Due to his mental limitations, he doesn’t realize that this will take a lot more than boarding the village bus—which makes a great deal of sense, from his point of view. If you’ve never left a small town, or even a martial arts compound, what exactly is your concept of “far away?” Two towns over? Twenty-five miles? Lee’s grief is all the more tragic because, unlike him, the audience knows he’s embarking an odyssey of Homeric proportions.

On the bus ride to the city, he meets a young girl who is young and charming, but might as well have “stupid victim” tattooed on her forehead. She’s sixteen, in love with a man she met on the internet and has run away from home to meet and marry her sweetheart. This story confuses Lee something fierce, since he’s never seen a computer, and probably doesn’t have the capacity to understand online interaction, but when he sees his new friend grabbed by her new “boyfriend”—a sleazeball sex trafficker—he understands what needs to be done.

Kick tons of gangster ass.

And kick ass he does. The martial arts scenes aren’t flashy, but man are they brutal. We’re not just talking hands and feet here, but 2x4s, bottles, panes of glass, knives and more thrown elbows than a Manhattan subway platform at rush hour. I’ve never seen Dustin Nguyen before, but the man is obviously a master at what he does, and knows multiple forms of martial arts. What’s most amazing though, is how he manages to carry off explosive fight scenes without breaking character. No matter what he’s doing, from getting hit with a bottle to kneeing gangsters in the face, we still believe that he’s mentally challenged.

The only problem with this movie is that it’s playing both sides against the middle. Every drama scene is heartfelt and well carried, but they tend to move slowly, and the audience often becomes restless waiting for the action. On the flip side, we care so much about Lee that when it’s time for him to put the beatdown on goons, we’re too worried about him getting killed to really enjoy ourselves. The central paradox is this: Nguyen’s talent for holding character often makes the fight scenes disturbing to watch. Oh sure, Lee’s still the good guy, but watching his screams of childlike rage, I couldn’t help but think, Jesus, does he realize he’s killing people? It’s even worse when the situation is reversed, and gangsters are slashing him with knives or beating him with chains and bottles—the confused, hurt expression on Lee’s face robs the fight scene of entertainment. Halfway through I realized that was the point. It’s an anti-action film, and brilliantly decries the glorified violence of the film industry, but a lot of audience members who went in to see a martial arts movie came out disappointed.

The Legend Is Alive is a very, very excellent movie, no doubt about it. It swept the Golden Kite awards, Vietnam’s version of the Oscars, and deserved every award it got. If you decide to see it, just keep in mind that it’s a drama, not a martial arts movie.

RAMPAGE (United States, No US Release Date—Let’s hope it stays that way)
Avoid This Movie Like you Would a Leper with TB

No, that's not the real trailer. This movie pissed me off so much I don't want the real trailer on my blog. Screw Uwe Boll and Screw this movie.

Until Rampage, I had not seen a single film at Fantastic Fest that I disliked. When I got to the front of the line that morning and found out that the only tickets left in the midday time slot were for a Uwe “I’m the modern Ed Wood” Boll film, I took them happily. First of all, it was either see Rampage or drive home and walk the dog. Second, I had never actually seen a Boll film all the way through and was more than a little curious if they were really that bad. Third, I have to admit I wanted to see at least something I could hate on, since hating on bad movies makes me feel articulate and sophisticated. After all, I could never be the bully at the playground, why not do so at the theater? Besides, I heard that the Q&A with Boll at the first show was hysterical.

I should have walked the dog instead. Uwe Boll may have been murdering world cinema for years, but like all serial killers eventually do, he’s escalating.

If you don’t want to hear spoilers, stop reading right now. Rampage is about an unlikable, selfish, ambitionless, college-age wastrel who decks himself out in Kevlar and goes on a shooting spree through his Washington town. He kills soccer moms at the beauty salon, he kills a barista who didn’t make his coffee with extra foam, he shoots a fast food employee who spilled a drink on him and “didn’t seem sorry enough.” From Boll’s record of directing fanciful but supremely stupid films that include heavy doses of satire, you’d think this would be some kind of satire on video game culture or violence in media. It isn’t. It’s just 90 minutes of filthy, mean-spirited, irredeemable hatefulness.

Which is almost sad, because certain scenes are actually not bad. There’s a fascinating section where the shooter walks unnoticed into a bingo hall full of senior citizens mesmerized by their cards and counters. He harms not a hair on them, presumably because he believes them to be bereft of life already. Likewise, early scenes of the shooter and his best friend debating over a fried chicken meal are at least mildly interesting in a sort of philosobabble sense, but the stench of Tyler Durden lies heavy on them, as if Boll has failed to realize that Fight Club wasn’t that profound in the first place. What is so tragic about this whole situation is that while Boll’s skill may have improved, his vision is so artistically wrongheaded that the theme completely destroys itself, when in the end, it turns out its 45 minute scene of civilian-murdering audience torture was only done to cover up a bank robbery. Seriously. After all that crappy debating about consumerism and hints about the stresses of American life making young people lose it, it turns into a heist flick. The guy just wants to steal a bunch of money, kill his best friend, and pin the rampage on him after making it look like a suicide.

And he gets away with it. No punishment at all. In fact, the kid isn’t even sorry, or in any way marked by what he’s just done. I can’t help but think Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris would have loved this movie. What’s even worse about this is that the ridiculous philosophizing at the beginning condones mass murder because “most people don’t contribute anything to society.” This presupposes that raising children and having jobs and doing all the responsible things these dickhead unemployed pseudo-intellectual brats don’t do isn’t enough of a “contribution.”

You know who doesn’t contribute anything to society? Uwe Boll.

Enjoy this video of Festival Founder Tim League and Uwe Boll in the boxing ring at The Fantastic Debates. Keep swinging Tim, keep swinging.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

ULTRAMARINES: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie- What We Know So Far

This news item is what I like to refer to as a "Fanboy Nuke."

About a month ago it was announced that Games Workshop, creator of game franchise Warhammer 40,000, is producing a movie called ULTRAMARINES. While this was exciting, the lack of information about the film made most fans respond with cautious enthusiasm rather than outright adoration.

Well that's just changed.

It turns out ULTRAMARINES: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie is being shot from a screenplay written by Dan Abnett. If you're not a Warhammer fan this won't strike you as big news- but trust me, it is. If you heard a series of popping noises on Thursday evening, it was the sound of fanboy heads exploding across the world Scanners-style in response to this announcement. (See video below.)

Warhammer 40,000 is a tabletop wargame that has recently branched out into other media, including the Dawn of War PC games. The premise is that in a dark future, mankind has forged a brutal dictatorial galactic empire constantly at war with malevolent alien species that range from inter-dimensional demons to Space Orks. (Yes, like in Lord of the Rings, except these have spaceships and guns.) It's a bleak world of big battles and big heroes, where every day at the office looks like the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring crossed with a Soviet human wave attack. The "Ultramarines" of the film are genetically and technologically-enhanced ultimate warriors who have traded their humanity in exchange for power armor, a fanatical religious creed, and the power to own pretty much anyone or anything on cue. Picture the lovechild that would result if a Knight Templar boinked Optimus Prime and you've basically got them nailed. (Or see the opening video from Dawn of War below.)

As for Dan Abnett, he's is an award-winning comics writer and bestselling author known for writing quite good Warhammer 40k tie-in novels like the Eisenhorn Trilogy and Gaunt's Ghosts series. (I'll be reviewing his first original novel, Triumff sometime soon.) Not only is he known for writing vivd battle scenes, but he's also a one-man argument for why tie-in fiction shouldn't be dismissed as inherently terrible. In short, he's undeniably the most prolific and successful author in the large stable of writers fostered by Games Workshop's publications wing, The Black Library. Though Abnett is a first-time screenwriter, his knowledge of the franchise and good track record outweighs any worry about him producing a quality script. Besides, the man has written comics for twenty years, and as we saw in the recent Watchmen adaptation, comic panels are really just storyboards with speech bubbles.

Essentially, in hiring Dan "my-characters-kick-so-much-ass-they-don't-have-energy-left-to-take-names-afterward" Abnett, the good folks at Codex Pictures (who made the Bionicle trilogy) have shown that they're dedicated to doing a 40k film that's "respectful," rather than the quick cash-in so many fans feared. I'm sure there will also be a faction that immediately crystalizes against the film, since like any writer, there's a segment of the fanbase that really doesn't like him. Nonetheless, from my perspective this is really, really good news, and has already spurred book-length internet debates on what the film will look like, what the rating will be, whether the Ultramarines were the right choice for the protagonists, etc, etc.

But I'm going to avoid that. Instead, I'm going to take a clear, facts-based look at what we know, and what we don't know, just so we're all on one page.

First of all, there's the announcement of Abnett writing the screenplay, as mentioned above. What's almost more important than that, however, is the fact that Codex decided that this would be the first substantive information to release about the project. This is in marked contrast to an earlier adaptation, Bloodquest, that released test footage of Ork Dreadnaughts and Imperial tanks as part of its launch announcement before the project became mired in production hell. Instead of concept art or a teaser trailer, Codex has decided to emphasize story, which is a good omen. It also can't hurt that their frontman is a widely-trusted storyteller from the franchise, and is visibly enthusiastic about the project. Seriously, putting Abnett in front of a camera was a friggin' masterful PR move. His on-camera confidence about the endeavor will probably quiet a lot of fears.

Next is the announcement of the director, Martyn Pick, which was overshadowed by everyone's preoccupation with the film's celebrity screenwriter. (Now that's a sentence you don't read often.) Pick has mostly directed short films, such as the London 2012 film for the Beijing Olympics, and has described his style as "painterly," which would seem overwhelmingly pretentious if it wasn't so literally true. For a good sense of his work, which has some 40k elements, see the animated intro to the film The Age of Stupid. There's no real sense of if he has any talent with actors here, but you've gotta admit the man has a good eye and can work CGI.

Script and director aside, there was also an announcement on the Ultramarines and Codex website that didn't get a lot of press: according to the film website, Ultramarines is a "feature-length movie on DVD... a 70-minute sci-fi thriller that will use CGI and state-of-the-art animation production techniques [my emphasis]." Yes, I hear you groaning- direct to DVD is rarely a mark of quality-but hold up a minute.

I'm going to convince you that this is actually a very, very good thing.

I've always been a big naysayer when it came to a 40k movie for several reasons. The foremost of these was the cost it would take to get a film produced to the standards fans would expect. The action in 40k is by definition epic, involving alien monsters, planetary assaults, and massive battles, meaning that a theatrical film of the property could easily require a budget approaching $100 million, plus $50 to $100 million for advertising costs. In contrast, the sales and operating profits for Games Workshop in 2009 were GBP 125.7 million, and that's before taxes, losses and other factors. In short, GW couldn't finance a major studio release by itself even if it used all the money it makes in a year. To do so would require outside investment, which usually means big studios and the Hollywood system (which doesn't mean an American studio, "the Hollywood system" is a worldwide business model) which is notorious for mangling beloved franchises in order to make them more family-friendly and attain a PG-13 rating. This is especially alarming for a property like Warhammer 40,000, wherein the good guys routinely execute their own soldiers for cowardice and think nothing of nuking planets full of civilians ala Alderaan. Suffice to say, watered-down Ultramarines aren't Ultramarines at all, and Games Workshop has wisely passed on Hollywood as a financially-risky option which might alienate fans.

Instead of paying to book theaters and advertise, GW has opted to go with a route where they can pour the majority of funding into the movie itself. This is a cost-saving measure, and will probably improve the overall quality of the film, ensuring they can keep a semblance of control over their intellectual property while still producing a workable movie. Likewise, the succinct running time is a way to save animation expenditures and keep budgets in check. This isn't unusual in CGI films. Toy Story 2, for example, ran only 70 minutes. It is also likely that because it's being released on DVD, the film won't have to be submitted to a ratings board, meaning that all the chainsword splatter we're expecting can be unleashed on some unsuspecting Tyranids/Orks/Chaos Marines without any raised eyebrows at the MPAA and its international equivalents. In general, it looks like the capital investments they've acquired are spread pretty evenly, so no one has too much control over the content or direction of the film. It's a smart move, and a smart investment for their backers.

Because here are the facts, kids: a DVD movie with Ultramarines in it, distributed in a small-to-moderate release and sold mostly at Games Workshop stores and independent retailers, is almost certain to be a financial success. Everyone who plays Warhammer is going to buy a copy of this, everyone who's interested in Warhammer books and comics will buy it, Dawn of War players will buy it, hell, even old-guard like me who only trot their minis out a couple times a year will buy it. It's almost foolproof, this DVD is is going to print its own goddamn money. And when you also factor in that it's basically an advertisement for the hobby as a whole, books, games and all, it's a brilliant business move.

So what will they do with that money? This is pure speculation on my part, but I'd guess they'll use it to make another movie. I'll bet anything this isn't a one-shot deal, and we'll be seeing IMPERIAL GUARD: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie as a follow-up. It would be impractical to do a movie about every army of course, but when you start matching up armies into hero/villain pairs for each movie, GW could run through its stable of mainstream races pretty quickly. So basically, instead of getting one tepid 40k movie on the big screen, there's a possibility of several good ones on the small screen. It's also not unheard of for smaller movies like this to make the festival circuit in order to pick up an award or two as a selling point, so it's possible it could be seen on the big screen somewhere. I'm confident they'll at least play it at Games Day.

You better believe I'm drafting a letter to Harry Knowles urging him to lock down a screening at Fantastic Fest.

As a footnote, this film announcement also explains why Games Workshop dropped the hammer on Damnatus, the charming little German 40k fanfilm-that-could which was hogtied by GW lawyers last year a few weeks before its expected release. At the time, it seemed incredibly mean-spirited of GW to come down on the little group of independent filmmakers, especially since they had, ironically, produced a film that was essentially a tribute to GW's products. There was very negative fan reaction, since frankly, we'd been waiting for a 40k movie ten years and it wasn't like GW was giving us one, right?

Except they were. Turns out Ultramarines was in production as far back as two years ago, and in that context the legal action makes a lot of sense. You see, German copyright law being what it is, even a not-for-profit film can successfully challenge the intellectual property rights of a company like GW. Basically, according to the Germans, if you make it, you own it. GW has a substantial presence in Germany, and they didn't want their own film rights muddied by any rival films, well-intentioned amateur productions or not. Let's hope they dropped a hint about this project as part of the deal to shut Damnatus down.

So, will it be good? Who can tell? I'm personally choosing optimism. A movie is a complex thing that can be ruined by any one of its many ingredients. Even if everything's top-notch, you can have an excellent story, good source material, a decent script, a talented director, and a cast full of wonderful actors and still not have the film come out right. (See: The Black Dhalia.) Right now, we don't really have any idea what it would be like, and I hate to speculate.

So what do you guys think? Ultramarines: good idea as a franchise start point, or not? Disappointed by the direct-to-DVD distribution? Who do you want to see as the villains? Were the Ultramarines the right choice for the inaugural 40k movie?

I'll leave you with the openings to Dawn of War II, just so we can imagine what might one day come to our DVD players.

ROME Hasn't Fallen Yet: Rumors of a Movie Surface Again

According to actor Kevin McKidd and the NY Post, there is definitely a film version of HBO's ROME in development. (And of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but that's another post.) Fans of neck-stabbing and nubile-British-women-playing-nubile-Italian-women rejoice!

If you've never seen the show and wonder why this is exciting, watch the clip below to find out how much ass this show kicks just in the first three minutes of the pilot episode:

Now we've known that there was a ROME movie in development for at lest a year, but there's a few interesting tidbits to be extrapolated form this article. First there's McKidd's assertion that he'll be directly involved and that the movie will pick up right after the strongly-hinted but widely disbelieved "death" of his character Lucius Vorenus. That's interesting for two reasons-first because we've gotten confirmation from two separate sources that our dear Louie V, is still amongst the living instead of stomping balls in Hades, and second because it puts paid to any rumors that the film would be a prequel.

The second point will no doubt upset fans who miss series staples like Marc Antony, Cesar, and Brutus, but I'm personally glad they're not rifling through the series's crypt of dead characters. After all, to do so might undercut the extremely strong performances given in the original series, since we already know what happens to all these people. (Having said that, it would be almost worth it in order to be able to stare doe-eyed at Indra Varma for two hours.)

Also, since Vorenus is playing a part in the film, I'm going to go ahead and suggest series creator Bruno Heller's earlier plans to include Jesus in the film are off the table. Considering that the series ended after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and that Vorenus is portrayed as middle-aged at that point, our favorite tormented soldier would either be very old or very dead by the 4 BC birth of Christ. I don't know about you, but I don't see them hiring Kevin McKidd in order for him to hobble around on a cane.

I'm looking forward to this one. What do you guys think? Upset James Purefoy (who was in Solomon Kane, reviewed below) isn't coming back as Antony? Want to see a power struggle between Atia and Livia over who's the most malignant feminine influence behind Octavian's throne? Tell me in the comments.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What I Saw At Fantastic Fest Part 2: Hey! Hey! Great Fun Asian Film Spectacular Edition!

Whenever you go to a genre festival like Fantastic Fest, you find that little subcultures develop within the few thousand people that attend the festival. Chances are, you'll care for one genre more than another, and as a result you'll become pretty familiar with the people who share your tastes as you wind up next to them in line or in a theater. By the end of the week, you're seeking each other out and saving each other's seats, comparing notes on what you've seen and what the verdict was. All the Asian film fans tend to stick together, as do the gorehounds, the horror fans, the weird cinema aficionados, the action junkies, the Hollywood premiere-hoppers and the animation freaks.

The funny thing is that at a genre festival as diverse as Fantastic Fest, you wind up in more than one subculture at once. I myself was heavy on the Asian films, the weird cinema and action movies, and was only a minor dabbler in the horror and animation camps. (I'll admit it- I'm a wuss when it comes to horror films.) As a result, the following post is devoted entirely to the awesome Asian films I saw, whereas the next post will be loosely devoted to "action movies." There are some real gems down there today, so don't rush...

And just a note, by rights, Kawogama Harumo: Battle League in Kyoto should be at the top of this list, but I did it last post before thinking of grouping these films by theme.

PRIVATE EYE (South Korea, Playing at Hawai’i International Film Festival, No US Release)

(Sorry, couldn't find a subtitled trailer. There is one here)

Dae-min Park may be the only person who loves L.A. Confidential more than I do, and I say that because Private Eye is essentially Park's attempt to make his own version, set in 1910 Seoul. And surprise, surprise-it works, in fact it works like gangbusters. I really liked this movie, but it doesn't quite live up to the film that inspired it.

1910 Korea is heating up as Japanese interests make inroads in the country and the locals start worrying that the Land of the Rising Sun’s intentions may not be too benevolent. Seoul seethes with enough corruption and intrigue to warrant calling in Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer all at the same time. However, they’ll just have to make do with bumbling but brilliant Jin-ho (masterfully protrayed by Hwang Jeong-min), a western-style PI who ekes a living taking snapshots of cheating spouses and selling them to the tabloids.

Meanwhile, meek but genius-grade medical student Kwang-su lives a bleak existence in a teaching hospital, being lorded over by his Japanese instructor who suggests that Kwang will never be a true doctor until he dissects a real human body. Lucky for Kwang, he stumbles across a dead guy in the woods and takes him home for practice.

Then Kwang learns it’s the Interior Minister’s son. Oops.

Hoping to clear his name before he’s caught in the city-wide manhunt, Kwang hires Jin-ho to find the killer before he’s accused. With the help of a gadget-inventing noblewoman (Uhm Ji-won), the pair begins a rousing adventure through the city of Seoul, trekking through hospitals, murder scenes, opium dens, and a decidedly sinister circus.

Apart from some sloppy editing that causes minor continuity errors, Private Eye is a tightly-wound mystery tale that’s above all fun, something that’s often missing from Korean films. It isn’t strictly an historical film, since it draws just as much on James Bond as it does turn-of-the-century Korea, but the setting creates a delicious tone of old versus new and east versus west that delivers up interesting visual payoffs throughout, (Jin-ho walking into a traditional circus while wearing his porkpie hat is one, Uhm Ji-won swathed in a dress while holding a welding mask in front of her face is another). The city of Seoul itself seems convincing and alive, like you could step onto the muddy streets and slurp noodles at a street side stand along with the characters. I felt the same way when I watched L.A. Confidential, as if I could check into the seedy neon motels and sleep on their stained mattresses. What really anchors the whole thing though, are solid performances from the entire cast, with the standout being Hwang Jeong-min’s soft-boiled private eye. The first time Kwang tries to hire him in the murder investigation, he slams the door in the kid’s face and says he doesn’t take dangerous jobs. It’s a refreshing dose of reality in a genre where heroes often go to the ends of the earth for strangers.

Do not miss this film, it’s good storytelling, genuinely humorous, and has enough twists and turns to keep it going. The continuity errors are a shame, since the mystery format tends to make things like that stand out, but good acting and writing can cover a multitude of sins, including these.

ROBOGEISHA (Japan, No US Release Date)


The only Secret Screening I managed to get into turned out to be the (not “world” for legal reasons) premiere of Robogeisha, which ranks as the flat-out oddest movie I saw at Fantastic Fest, and brother that’s saying something.

See, when you watch as many movies as I do, you need to see films like Robogeisha every once in awhile. Having seen hundreds of movies that follow traditional plot structures and use stock characters, I can not only guess the next plot twist in an average movie, I can guess the next line of dialogue. For people like me, movies that are as off-the-wall as Robogeisha bring back the kind of what-happens-next suspense we don’t get from the standard summer movie fare. This is a movie where almost anything can happen.

Kids, do I even have to explain why this movie rules? When the trailer came out on YouTube, there was some discussion over whether the film actually existed. There were those who assumed no one was bizarre enough to make a feature-length film like this, even as a joke.

Oh they were so sublimely wrong.

I’m not even going to attempt to describe the plot—but it’s actually a lot more traditional than it seems. It’s perplexing, it’s surprising, and it’s all far less bloody than you’d think. To even describe what happens would be to ruin some of the fun, but just to give you an idea: at one point the heroine drowns a guy in his own stomach acid

I must be kidding, right?

Watch it. Oh, then you’ll see.

By then it will be too late, Shiro Castles will be turning into angry robots and punching buildings, then the buildings will fountain blood, then the geisha will all turn into Transformers and drive up the sides of the buildings so they can take over the Shiro Castle by dueling the evil businessman inside so he can’t drop his Ultimate Bomb into Mount Fuji.

I’m going to be honest here: I’m not sure how much of this movie I saw and how much I hallucinated, I lost a lot of sleep last week. I will tell you this though: almost every kill scene in this film gained raucous cheers from the audience.

Robogeisha exists in that weird netherworld of B-movies that are exactly what their titles are. No one walks into a movie with a title like this thinking it’s going to take home Oscar gold. Some of the effects are massively cheesy and the first scene doesn’t fit into the film’s chronology at all, but considering its miniscule budget (which ran in the low hundred thousands) Noburo Iguchi has made a movie that gives a huge bang for your buck. It’s rare that a film can remain tongue-in-cheek while still offering up action that’s fun to watch, but Iguchi manages it. There are some inspired scenes of comedy as well, such as a bureaucrat dodging sword-wielding assassins while on his cell phone, politely explaining to a superior that he can’t take his call at the moment.

Things only got more manic during the Q&A, when director Noboru Iguchi, special effects director (and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl director) Yoshihiro Nishimura, festival director Tim League and Marc Walkow of the New York Asian Film Festival came out in traditional Japanese skivvies and danced up and down the rows of seats, waggling their pale asses in the faces of the audience. Afterward, the “Tengu Girls” from the movie ran in costume and performed a swordfight, then started sticking the filmmakers in the ass with pins. After that, things got a little weird...

There's videos on the Fantastic Fest website if you really want to hunt for them. Afterward, the cast and crew joined the rest of the festival attendants at the nearby Tim League-owned bowling/kareoke club the Highball, where they performed kareoke, judged a "Samurai Calling" competition and had one of the actresses perform a pole dance, which is her sideline trade (it was an artful one, rather than a sleazy one). Again, there are videos on the Fantastic Fest website if you really feel the need to check it out...

No one, goddamn NO ONE throws a party like Tim League.

CRAZY RACER (China, No US Release Date)

Crazy Racer has my all-time favorite cash for drugs exchange I’ve ever seen on film. It also has one of the better explosions, which you can see in the Fantastic Fest Trailer if you search for it on YouTube, but I didn't post here because giving it away would be criminal.

Mainland Chinese director Ning Hao has been called the Chinese Guy Richie, and considering this twisted, intricately-plotted gangster comedy, it’s a soubriquet that will probably stick. In about the first five minutes of Crazy Racer, we get the following information: Geng Hao is a champion bicyclist who comes in second in the race of his life. Hoping to salvage some face out of the defeat, he does a quickie endorsement for an herbal supplement while in the back of the locker room, but the drink makes him fail a drug test and his silver medal is stripped. The shock causes Hao’s long-suffering coach to die of a heart attack, and the bitter cyclist decides to go after the sleazy businessman who conned him in order to raise enough money to give his coach an “executive burial.”

But that isn’t really what this movie is about, it’s about bumbling first-time hitmen, Tong gangster flunkies with so few fingers they fumble their pistols, frustrated cops, nagging wives, and CEOs that dress like Superman. All these characters swirl around the usual gangster movie anchors: a fortune in heroin, a misplaced corpse, the ubiquitous briefcase full of money and a very unfortunate tank of turtles. What’s amazing about Hao’s work isn’t that he manages to juggle all these elements, but that he manages to juggle all these elements and make them feel new and interesting. I’ve probably seen six movies since the early ‘90s which have the same “crime caper goes wrong” premise as Crazy Racer, but by blending these genre staples with Chinese pop culture and religious traditions, he keeps the surprises coming.

The only caveat is that this is a movie where you really have to hang in there and pay attention. Most of the scenes before the halfway mark are setup, and if you haven’t kept up you’ll be wondering what the hell is going on. It also will do you well to familiarize yourself with the tradition of “hell money,” fake currency that’s sacrificed to the dead during Chinese funerals.

Seriously guys, keep an eye out for this one. Ning Hao has the potential to be the next big thing in Asian film and the people who are in the know about him from the beginning will have some serious film geek street cred down the road. Besides, we’re talking about a Chinese director who isn’t part of the Hong Kong cabal and is trying to strike out and do something different—and that’s pretty cool.

K-20: THE FIEND WITH 20 FACES (AKA: The Legend of the Mask) (Japan, No US Release Date)
Strongly Recommended

Every once in awhile I’ll see a movie that plays so strongly to my sensibilities that it seems like a “greatest hits” reel torn from my childhood imagination. K-20: The Fiend With 20 Faces is that kind of film.

In an alternate timeline where World War II never happened and aristocrats still run Japan, master thief K-20 terrorizes the upper classes with high-class heists. The unflappable Inspector Akechi is closing in on K-20 following the theft of a rare and potentially devastating Tesla device, when K-20 tricks a gullible circus acrobat, Endo, to be caught in his stead. On the run from Akechi’s gyrocopter-mounted SWAT teams, the army, and a corps of boy detectives, Endo finds that to catch K-20, he must become K-20. The plot really starts to gel when Endo saves Akechi’s rich-girl fiancé from the clutches of the masked thief and... well, you can guess the next plot twist from here, but let me just say that there are some pretty good surprises in store.

This movie is full of the ‘30s-‘50s pulp adventure tropes that I adore. It’s wall-to-wall master criminals, police inspectors, circus acrobats, boy detectives, aviatrixes, street urchins, military generals and gadget inventors. For Christ’s sake, it revolves around a Nikola Tesla doomsday machine. How much does that rule? Sure, the acting is sort of cartoony and sometimes verges on caricature, (and often it shades into cheesiness), but the wackiness of the movie feeds on that sort of energy. However, some people will be turned off by the fluctuating tone, which wavers up and down from dark to jubilant within single scenes. It’s not a perfect movie to be sure. The climax doesn’t jump the shark, but it certainly steps over it, and some of the more obviously borrowed elements can be distracting (Peter Parker will be suing for patent infringement on that wrist-deployed grappling hook).

But none of that matters to me, because this movie is flat out fun. You can make the same allegations of overacting against the Indiana Jones movies, but they work for the same reason K-20 does. Movies like this aren’t about reality, they’re about taking the tought wouldn’t it be cool if... to the furthest limit possible. They exist in a world of broad humor, amazing stunts and well-turned plot twists.

If you’re into the kind of pulp archetypes I mentioned above, don’t miss this movie. This movie was the most fun I had at Fantastic Fest, and one of the few I will be ordering off Amazon as soon as it’s available.

VAMPIRE GIRL vs. FRANKENSTEIN GIRL (Japan, Showing at Hawai'i International Film Festival, No US Release Date)
See It If You’re Interested (GOREHOUNDS ONLY)


Yoshihiro Nishimura is best known for his master’s thesis in splatter cinema, Tokyo Gore Police a movie so extreme that I'm halfway sure it put me into shock. However, TGP is well-respected in the gorehound and unintentional humor community, and most of Nishimura’s fans agree that Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl is nowhere near as shocking as that lauded film.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

In contrast to Gore Police, Vampire Girl is a twisted romantic comedy about a high school love triangle gone oh-so-very wrong. Mizushima is a normal high school boy who’s unfortunate enough to be the crowning desire of Keiko, the spoiled daughter of the vice-principal, who he manages to keep at bay most of the time. Everything begins to come apart one Valentine’s Day when Mizushima accepts a chocolate from the cute new transfer student Monami, cementing them as a couple. But this isn’t ordinary chocolate—when Mizushima takes a bite out of it he finds that it has some very, ahem, unique filling. Like blood... her blood. Turns out, Monami is a vampire and is apparently thinking of a much longer romantic commitment than Mizushima is really comfortable with. Understandably, he freaks out and runs off, having been half-turned to one of the denizens of the night.

But how does the overbearing Keiko feel about all this? Well, pretty pissed is a good summation, especially after she is killed in an accident and reanimated by her science-teacher father, who lurks in the basement wearing a Kabuki costume, doing bizarre experiments on dead students with the help of the “oversexed school nurse.” With Keiko’s new form, a patchwork of the strongest parts of several different students, she sets out to battle Monami and win Mizushima back. The rest of the film consists of a series of over-the-top action sequences as the two girls battle each other, while poor Mizushima sits on the sidelines and wonders why no one asks what he wants.

Every time I see a Nishimura movie, I feel like the first few rows should be labeled SPLASH ZONE, like at Sea World. Arterial blood spray plays a large part in Nishimura’s visual style, but here is played for laughs rather than gross-out value. Oh sure, there’s some really disgusting things here, but they’re cartoonish on the whole and you won’t see anything too disturbing. Which is not to say the film isn’t shocking... Nishimura riffs several subcultures and stereotypes that are prevalent in Japanese culture, such as wrist-cutters (who have an intramural team), chain-smoking Chinese teachers, and Ganguro girls, who are known to dye their skins brown and bleach their hair in order to look more like “California Girls.” In Vampire Girl, the Ganguro girls are obsessed with what they perceive as African American culture, which includes walking around in blackface, wearing bones through their noses, and banging drums while chanting, “Yes we can.” While the humor in the Ganguro scenes comes from the girls embracing wild stereotypes as truth, the scenes are still extremely uncomfortable. In some ways, the socially aggressive humor is just as shocking as the castrations and mutilations in Tokyo Gore Police.

In the end, the reason to see Vampire Girl is to take in some extremely odd visuals and way over-the-top violence, with some pretty good humor thrown in. (There’s a particularly fun sequence where the director of The Grudge makes a cameo as the chain-smoking Chinese teacher... and threatens to curse the class.) This movie buries the needle on the crazy-o-meter, but between the spraying gore and highly politically incorrect humor, it’s a difficult thing to recommend. Having said that, if you're in the mood to see a gonzo Japanese movie with a seriously twisted sense of humor, you can't go wrong with this one.

You’ve been warned.



Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Things I Saw At Fantastic Fest (And You Should Too) Part 1

For the last week I've been at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States, soaking in the glory of skull-burstingly awesome cinema until my eyeballs hurt. I saw 24 movies in a single week and attended three parties, and lucky you, I'm going to share every bit of it without you having to lose any of the sleep I did.

A note before we start: In general, I declined to see movies that were opening soon. For example, I skipped Zombieland, and Paranormal Activity in exchange for either going to movies I'll never have a chance to see on the big screen, like Crazy Racer, or the ever-inticing Secret Screenings. If you heard that a movie played at Fantastic Fest and it isn't included here, it either means the show sold out before I could pick up my tickets (Ninja Assassin), it was a Secret Screening I didn't get into (Dr. Parnassus) or something I had a ticket to, but ditched because it was playing at an inconvenient time or I wasn't going to get a good seat (Paranormal Activity).

So strap yourselves in and prepare for your world to be totally changed...

SOLOMON KANE (UK, October 28, 2009)
Strongly Recommended

The next person who tells me Solomon Kane is a ripoff of Van Helsing gets punched in the throat. Sword-and-Sorcery king Robert E. Howard created Kane in 1929, and any character who hunts vampires, witches or werewolves while wearing a wide-brimmed Puritan hat is Kane's spiritual descendant, not the other way around. Jackman’s Van Helsing isn’t fit to clean Kane’s flintlocks.

Let's begin with me saying this: Solomon Kane contains hands-down the best and most badass R.E. Howard moment ever filmed—you’ll know it when you see it.

This film is the best example of balls-out Sword and Sorcery fantasy I’ve ever seen. Michael Basset draws good characters, the fights are brutal, the monsters are (for once) actually scary and the origin the filmmakers invented makes sense in the context of the original stories. Production designers crafted every frame of this movie to be dirty, smelly and filled with crows eating dead men, just like a Howard movie should be.

That aside, the best thing about this movie is James Purefoy himself. This man gets Kane on a visceral level. He’s managed to craft a dour character without making him gloomy, he’s got a bit of a mad glint in his eye, and the moment he steps onscreen he looks like he’s ready to beat the shit out of someone. The fact that Purefoy can totally inhabit a badass character will be nothing new to anyone who saw his growling performance as the violent, fratboy-like Marc Antony in HBO’s Rome, but watch anyone unfamiliar with him gasp as he launches into one of Kane’s famous Puritan rages.

You’ll see almost every plot twist coming, but who cares? Howard’s writing never carried itself on innovative and surprising story lines. The original stories pretty much boiled down to: Kane wanders down the road, finds a monster and/or oppressed peasants, stomps everyone’s faces, continues wandering down the road—roll credits. There’s something wonderfully retro about this film that way, it isn’t trying to prove that it’s somehow smarter or savvier than its source material, and as a result is much more fun. It also manages to reverse the recent trend of casting supernatural creatures as heroes and makes the magicians and creatures of the netherworld out-and-out bad. Having a hero that burns witches instead of dating them is a really refreshing throwback. Even though it's straightforward, it's very modern and aware, and much more dialogue-driven than you’d expect—and there’s always that subversive idea lurking beneath the surface that Kane likes punishing the wicked a little too much.

There is some burned crust on this tasty little confection though. A few of the monsters look a bit too much like they were borrowing wardrobe from Middle Earth, and I’m sure it’ll make the fanboys scream “rip off” at the top of their lungs. Further on the upside, during the Q&A with director Michael Bassett, he suggested that this would be the first film in a trilogy. Let's hope the second film finds Kane pimpin' around Africa, smiting zombies with his Juju Staff and wrestling Anacondas.


Man I love Solomon Kane.


You won’t find this movie in theaters, but write down its title right now. Done that? Good. Whenever this movie comes out on DVD, rent it, watch it online, I don’t care, but see this flick. But here’s the deal: you’re not allowed to read about it, watch any trailers or ask anyone about it. This movie is stupendous, but only if you go in totally cold. It’s without doubt the weirdest feel-good college comedy of all time, the kind of gonzo batshit insanity only the Japanese can dream up. I’m not exaggerating when I say I laughed through almost this entire film.

Two Freshmen at Kyoto University, Akira and Koichi, get recruited by a club called the Order of the Azure Dragon, “a normal social club, the kind you’d find anywhere.” If you don’t believe that, well, neither do our duo, but they go along. Sure, the initiation ceremonies are a little odd, but the seniors buy all the beer and the girls are cute, so what’s to complain about? A love triangle rapidly forms between Akira, the luscious Sawara, and the glasses-wearing, toolkit-toting physics student Fumi (Chiaki Kuriyama, who you know as Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill) and it looks like it’s going to be a by-the-numbers love comedy until everyone starts stripping off their clothes and dancing. After that, things start to get a little weird...

Kamogawa Harumo charmed the pants off me, but its comic power comes from the viewer finding out the secrets of the Azure Dragon at the same time as the protagonists. It's fairly kid-friendly and very girlfriend-friendly, so don't worry that you're going to see faces ripped off and lots of gratuitous nudity- this isn't Tokyo Gore Police.

Please, please, please watch this without searching for a trailer. You’ll thank me, I promise.

KRABAT (Germany, No US Release Date)

It’s a movie about a Wizard School.

Wait! Wait! Don’t walk out; this one’s different, I promise. It involves people turning into crows and was based on a German children’s book called The Satanic Mill. Satisfied? I thought so. Moving on...

Krabat is an orphan during the Thirty Years’ War, whose hobbies are starving and shivering. One night, he’s called in a dream to an old mill across the hillside, where a grizzled one-eyed man called The Master takes him to be one of his twelve apprentices in the dark arts. While there are a lot of creepy things going on, he becomes caught up in the power of magic and neglects to wonder why his mentor, head journeyman Tonda (Daniel Brühl, the sniper from Inglourious Basterds) seems to be having a nervous breakdown. Krabat keeps from asking too many questions at first, content to be able to turn into a bird and defend the nearby village from roving bands of soldiers, but as soon as a blue-eyed girl enters the picture, all that starts to unravel...

Krabat is a callback to old fairy tales, the kind where magic was frightening and witches ate children instead of teaching them chemistry. If you want a break from Hogwarts, trust me, the Master’s Mill is miles and miles away.

GENTLEMAN BRONCOS (US, Late October 2009)
See It if You’re Interested

The latest offering from Jared Hess, the director of Napoleon Dynamite, which I did not like. Like that earlier film, these characters are funny in a quiet and quirky way, and the visual style is drab and detailed. Except for the fantasy sequences, Broncos retains the downbeat tone of Dynamite, and a sort of banal gloominess shrouds both films. Every time I watch a Jared Hess movie I spend most of the running time feeling sorry for the characters and wondering if their creator loves them. Somehow I keep picturing Hess as the Master of the Ant Farm, laughing as he tortures his poor creations in their bland, rural world.

In Broncos, melancholy teen writer Benjamin Purvis attends teen writing camp with his favorite Sci-Fi author, Ronald Chevalier, a kooky breast-and-Native-American-fashion-obsessed recluse who is in the middle of a career slump. Strapped for time on a deadline, Chevalier plagiarizes Ben’s novella, turns his hero into a transsexual, and makes it a hit. Meanwhile, Ben’s amateur filmmaker friends buy the rights to his novella and begin work on an epically terrible adaptation.

The movie often strains the bounds of believability, particularly when its more extreme characters play for laughs rather than approach the scene straight. The plot really starts popping seams in the middle, when Ben's Yeast Lords fanfilm premieres at a local theater and his friends are interviewed about it on the local news. Is there really that little going on in this town? Balancing that, Jermaine Clement gives a performance that involves some truly funny scenery-nibbling that makes the film a bit more palatable, and the sequences inside Ben's novel Yeast Lords that allow Sam Rockwell to ride on the back of rocket-propelled missile pod-laden deer break up the tedium. But the most fun parts of this movie contain Clement and Rockwell, who are both underused, and the whole never really adds up to anything. I'm also suspicious of any movie wherein the the plot claims a novel is a work of genius when it's so plainly stupid. The sequences with a shaggy Rockwell sewing his balls back on and shooting lasers at cyclopses are fun as they're happening, but as soon as publishers start freaking out over how good the book is, you can almost hear the audience thinking, Are you fucking kidding me? Hess claims to be a sci-fi fan, but instead of satirizing the genre and saying something interesting about it, he sets up an absurd straw man caricature to set alight. The message seems to be that sci-fi writers and fans are misanthropic loners who have something deeply wrong with them, which weirdly clashes with the loving credit sequence that showcases vintage sci-fi cover art, set to In the Year 2525.

And another thing... what the hell is it with Jared Hess and characters with accents? In Napoleon Dynamite it was a little more subdued, but here it's really broken the dyke. It works for some characters, but others have such grating voices I can barely stand when they come onscreen.

Every time I see a Jared Hess film, I walk out smelling mothballs. See this one for Sam Rockwell and Clement, but otherwise don't bother.

FIRST SQUAD (Russia/Japan, No US Release Date)
Not Recommended--or recommended to those who are interested

Can you imagine a Russian produced, written and acted movie drawn in anime style by 4C, one of the most reputable animation studios in Japan? Now picture that movie starring a group of telepathic Soviet agents trying to stop an undead army of Teutonic knights from ravaging the Eastern Front, and you’ve got the premise of one of the weirdest anime films on record. That’s right, it’s Nazi vs. Soviet supernatural ops, and if the movie lived up to the image that creates of supernatural knights kicking over T-34 tanks it might have been one of the most epic pieces of animation ever created. Sadly, the battle scenes are lackluster and the film is criminally short—and when you factor in how much of that time is spent describing alternate history back story, the thrills are woefully short lived. There are cool things to be seen here--a device for sending people to the netherworld that looks like a dentist chair crossed with an old diving suit particularly stands out—but the whole thing never works as a whole. There are also live-action interviews with (supposed) "veterans" and "historians" cut into the film, but most of it doesn't contribute to the story, at best padding the 75 minute runtime and at worst undercutting the action. Thankfully, they left it open for a sequel, so here's hoping they make the most of their idea next time around.

As a footnote: why do directors always feel they have to take the time to explain that the Nazis had secret occult programs? Isn’t this a staple of pop culture memory? Check this one out for the novelty, but otherwise don’t bother.


Rob LiveBlogs Twilight While Drinking Bourbon

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of Twilight. I've never bought into vampires in a big way in the first place, and Stephanie Meyer's incarnations seemed like more of the watered-down tripe I've come to expect from the recent additions to the genre.

As far as I'm concerned the whole point of vampires is that they’re scary, and I think that important piece of the puzzle is almost completely absent from popular media. The vampires of myth, the soulless predators that stalk humans, were long jettisoned in favor of a more "modern," humanistic model. To me, vampires are monsters, and I like them that way. The more vampires become like humans, the less interesting they are. Modern vampires, with all their powers, toned-down weaknesses and penchant for protecting humans, might as well be the goddamn X-men.

By making vampires personable and human, Stiffy Meyer and her ilk have taken one of the most frightening creatures of human imagination, a shape-shifting predator who drinks human blood and is a walking damnation engine, and made it not only safe, but an object of desire. How the hell did that happen?

I was ripping on Twilight in this vein the other day, as I have been known to do from time to time—well, all the time actually—and one of my co-workers did something I’ve been dreading for months.

She called me on it. She made me admit I’d never read the book or seen the movie, and therefore all my opinions were secondhand. She totally cleaned my clock, called me intellectually dishonest, and said I wasn’t allowed to make fun of Twilight unless I’d either read the book or seen the movie.

And she was absolutely right. It's a perfectly fair deal.

The scene below is what happened next:

Yes, that is Twilight, in my apartment, and a brand-new bottle of bourbon bought specially for this occasion. I bought Woodford Reserve, which is expensive, but good. I'll pay extra for fine alcohol, because my body is a temple, and it deserves the most expensive poison I can afford.

I figured I might need it to survive two hours of moon-eyed teenage abstinent vampire romance.

For the next three hours, I watched Twilight, pausing to blog my thoughts on the progression of the film. After all, it’s first hand, isn’t it? And lucky you, you can be there with me through every minute of it.

First nitpick: fans of the series, and the DVD box, refer to the series as the Twilight Saga. Twilight is not a goddamn saga. Sagas are Nordic and Icelandic stories of heroes and gods, mostly passed down through oral tradition. Of course, people in advertising seem to treat the word “saga” as a synonym for “series,” which is one of many examples in their vicious abuse of the English language.

In case you’re curious, here are the ads before Twilight:

BANDSLAM: A PG movie about a rock band. If that sounds like crap to you, you have more taste than Lisa Kudrow’s agent. Oh dear Lisa, who do you owe money to?

ASTROBOY: I’m not gonna lie, I’m excited for this one, even though it’ll probably be terrible.

PUSH: A film about some douche with too much hair product that can do the Jedi trick Force Push. Push is beneath contempt, a comic-book movie that isn’t based on a comic book, so 16 year-old boys don’t feel geeky going to it.

Bella, a clingy, dour, and uninteresting teen. Most Twilight fans are so unaware of the vampire source material their little kingdom is based on, they probably don’t realize that the nickname “Bella” is a tribute to Bela Lugosi. Now there’s a man who could play a vampire.

Eddie CullCull, an obnoxious bloodsucker with bad hair, who spends most of the film high on makeup fumes from his whitened face.

Stiffy Meyer, who wrote this abomination.

Well, I’m pushing Play. Bottoms up, everyone. I’ll pause the film to comment when I take objection to something. I’ll provide time stamps from here on out, just in case you want to scavenge up the scenes I’m commenting on.


Wait, wait, hold it. It’s rated PG-13 for violence and a scene of sensuality? A as in one? I thought this movie was supposed to be hosed down with sex appeal. Jesus Christ people, you’re going nuts for a single scene of sensuality? Now ladies, I assume you know about the internet, since you're reading this post on it- here's a tip, search around a bit. Ten minutes in, you'll wonder why you ever gave a damn that the werewolves don't wear shirts in New Moon.

“I’ll miss Phoenix. I’ll miss the heat.” Bella, I’ve been to Phoenix. I know people who used to live there. Nobody misses the heat.

Let’s see what we have: teen girl, divorced parents, uncommunicative father, and a big bag of abandonment issues. Oh yeah, I see were this is headed. Abusive boyfriend, right?


And of course the Native Americans are werewolves! Why wouldn't they be?

Here's how I imagine Stiffy Meyer cleared this with her agent:

AGENT: So... all the werewolves are Native Americans?

STIFFY: Yeah, they're all werewolves! RARR!

AGENT: Uh, okay, why are Native Americans the only ones who turn into werewolves?

STIFFY: Well 'cause they're close to nature, ya know? With their spirit guides and wolf pelts and stuff. Like, they're close to the beasts, so they turn into beasts! WOOF WOOF.

AGENT: Right, but you are aware that throughout American history, Native Americans were frequently seen as "animals" that lacked souls, right? And that this depiction of them as animals was an argument used to justify atrocities? And you know that, to be blunt, Mormonism was at the vanguard of claiming that Native Americans were somehow "marked," and different, right? So don't you think this is a little, I don't know, "iffy?"

STIFFY: Do you think we can get Jacob to wear less clothes in the next movie? I like my Native Americans bare-chested, since obviously they feel uncomfortable in modern clothes. RARR! WOOF WOOF!

Look, I'm not claiming Stephanie Meyer is a bad person, but hell, she's at the very least totally unaware of her own subtext. It's a problem throughout this movie, and I'd assume the books as well. I mean, did she ever stop to think about this before she wrote it?

Note to future directors: if the entrance of your romantic lead sends me into a giggle fit so intense that my dog starts whimpering and pawing my stomach in concern, you’ve done something wrong. As if his Dust Buster-styled hair and floury whiteness weren’t absurd enough already, the makeup artists decided to do Eddie’s lips as if he’d just finished the biggest cherry Tootsie Pop ever created. They look infected. Can vampires get herpes?

Ok, so fifteen minutes into this movie, vampires are finally doing what they’re supposed to. Eating people. Aaaaaand it lasts all of twenty seconds. Great.

Second bourbon? Why thank you, I think I will.

I think Eddie loves Bella because she’s the only girl in school paler than he is.

Holy Shit, Eddie’s dad is the town doctor! A vampire doctor! Dr. Vampire, MD, now that’s a brilliant idea for a TV show. Think of it like ER or House, except he pauses in between heart transplants to lick his scalpel clean or "tap the keg" on his latest chemo patient. Hell, he could be a one-man euthanasia squad, putting the terminally ill out of their misery and saving patients with his super senses and hyper-quick surgical skills. Seriously, I call dibs on this one, I get to pitch it to NBC... I stole it first, dammit.

This is easily the most interesting idea in the movie, and Stiffy isn’t going to do crap with it, I can already tell.

He watches her sleep? I... I seriously don’t even know what to say to that. Well girls, in the world according to Stiffy, someday you too may be lucky enough to find a man who loves you enough to climb in your window and watch you sleep.

Look how inclusive and racially diverse Bella’s group of friends are! There’s a nerdy Asian guy, a glasses-wearing Asian girl who can’t get boys, and a Black guy full of tricks and jokes.

Ah, enter the villains. Now normally, in a story with boring central characters, this would be the part where the movie gets good. After all, stories may be about heroes, but are frequently driven by the villain. After all, there’s a reason the first James Bond film was called Doctor No, and that Javier Bardem got top billing in No Country for Old Men. I often refer to this as the Captain Hook Effect, citing that no one goes to see Peter Pan in order to see the boy who never grows up. No, we see Pan because there’s a swaggering pirate captain that sings a song about the gleeful pleasure of bullying, murder and wallowing in your own ego.

Judging by the villains here though, we’re not going to see something half as interesting. Here two palefaces hem in their victim, mewing all the questions their previous feasts have asked before dying. A third vampire pipes up: “James, let’s not play with our food.”


How’s about this for an alternate line? “James, you know how I hate it when you forget to say grace.”

Or this: “James, they aren’t as succulent if you curdle their blood first.”

Or this: "Rob, would you like some more bourbon?"

Why yes, yes I would.

After Bella gets attacked by a bunch of men in an alley, Eddie saves her and drives away in his cool Volvo sedan, fuming about how she doesn’t know “the vile, repulsive things they were thinking.”

Not to defend a bunch of mugging sexual predators, but I would like to point out that Eddie CullCull wants to eat her. I’m not sure what the muggers had in mind, but I’ll bet a good bottle of scotch that using her as a Slurpee wasn’t among their plans.

On another note, I wonder how much Volvo had to shell out for Mr. Sparkly Dream to drive one of their sedans? This is another thing that I don’t get: if you were immortal, would you drive a Volvo? I mean what the hell is he worried about, crash safety? If I were immortal, screw side-impact airbags, I’m driving a freakin’ GTO. I'm talking about the uber-dangerous type from the '70s that punches its steering column through your chest when you get into a high-speed collision.

Let’s recap, girls.

Scenario: You’re on a date with a guy who admits he’s been following you, claims to be able to read minds and says he can no longer stay away from you.

Which do you do?
A) Offer to split the check, even though he didn’t order anything, and leave as friends.
B) Decide this is just the sort of guy you’ve been looking for.

Hur, hur, hur. He a vampire. Who’d guess? Apparently the clan of CullCull isn’t just a bunch of inbred, antisocial, narcissistic loners with albinism and eating disorders. Nope, that’s just the actors.

Seriously, has no one in the town of Forks, Washington ever seen a bloody vampire movie, or play, or TV show, or read a novel about the supernatural? The whole family is absurdly pale, never eats in public, never comes to school when it’s sunny and have the reflexes of cheetahs on combat drugs. Where is the big mystery here?

What makes this scene even more unintentionally funny is that it’s shot like the end of The Usual Suspects, as if the audience is just now putting the pieces together and experiencing a sudden and alarming revelation.

Tip for aspiring filmmakers: if the audience is in on the secret from the beginning, for the love of God, don’t do this.

Ohmygod so romantic, he’s giving her a piggy back ride!

Just like a child... just... like... like a guy who’s been alive for a long time is giving a woman one quarter of his age an... er... an infantilizing piggy back ride. (Shiver.) He could be her great-grandpa, couldn’t he?

Where’s that bourbon? I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.

So, the infamous sparklies. (If you don’t know, in Twilight vampire skin sparkles like diamonds in daylight.) I’ve come to the conclusion that vampires don’t sleep in their native earth during the day, they just come out at night because they’re too embarrassed at how flamboyant they look.

Except during the ‘70s. That kind of thing would go under the radar in the ‘70s.

She knows he wants to kill her. Does she still want him? You betcha. You know I keep hearing these two being compared to Romeo and Juliet, but I think it’s far more akin to Doctor Lecter and Agent Starling... he’d normally eat her, but she’s so damn interesting.

Dating tip, girls: if a man loves you solely because you smell like a tasty victim, this is not a good basis for a relationship.

And isn’t 90 years a little too big an age difference for a relationship? I’m no prude, I’m just saying.

“Of three things I was certain: first, Edward was a vampire.”

Thank you Bella, for reiterating the point of the entire last scene. What, are you reinforcing it for theatergoers who were in the John? Do you possibly have some kind of brain damage? That would explain why Eddie CullCull can’t read your thoughts: most of the time there aren’t any.

And anyone notice that they don’t seem to love each other for their personalities? They just seem to fit together because they’re both so damn attractive. Where are the scenes of them laughing together and having fun? This relationship feels like being in a funeral parlor... the last time I checked, dating was fun.

So... the sister thinks she smells yummy too... and vampire bites are metaphors for sex so... uh... yeah.

So he’s spent the last hundred years going to high school? Why? What is he afraid of, truancy cops? He's a goddamn vampire-- fuck truancy cops! Has he spent a century without hearing about fake IDs? What sends me around the bend even worse about this is that they would already have to forge documents attesting to his age in order to put him in school and get him a driver's license. This means that if anyone in the Cullen Cabal was thinking clearly, they would've just forged him a driver's license claiming that he's 18 or 21 and left it at that. Even if they forged his ID to say he was seventeen, at seventeen, he can officially drop out and not have to deal with an eternity of dissecting tapeworms in Bio Lab. What's the point of him going to high school anyway? Is he being groomed for vampire college? This guy is old enough to have learned Darwin's theory in person.

And here’s another problem with CullCull—where’s the wisdom? As far as Stiffy Meyer is concerned, CullCull spent a century on earth (twice that, when you factor in that he doesn’t sleep), yet seems to have accumulated absolutely zero knowledge whatsoever. Shouldn’t he have grown out of the awkward teen stage by now? Probably the most interesting unexplored question in this movie is that of CullCull’s past, yet instead of Bella asking what it was like to live in the Roaring Twenties or the Great Depression or sixties counterculture, she mopes around talking about how she doesn’t like to dance and stares at Eddie with big, watering eyes.

This is the most incurious children’s book character in history. “You’ve lived a hundred and six years? Well ok. Gosh you have nice lips.”

Bella just looked over a beautiful Washington vista and said, “This isn’t real, this kind of stuff just doesn’t exist.”

Actually, it’s called nature, and it’s been there for quite awhile. Apparently Bella’s parents weren’t much on camping or National Geographic.

Holy shit, so he admits that he’s been climbing in her window to watch her sleep for months.

Then again, that might not be so bad, right? I once read a novel where a guy climbs in a woman’s window to watch her sleep...

Oh wait, that was a police report.

And afterward, they start making out and he lays down in bed by Bella to watch her sleep once again. This is too creepy for words. Both the power differential between them, and Eddie’s “romantic” predator behavior just keep driving this movie more and more into the territory of abusive relationships.

Let’s make a checklist:
1) Subject says he can’t be with love interest because he thinks he’ll hurt her. Check.
2) Subject says he doesn’t have the strength to leave love interest alone. Check.
3) Subject stalks love interest. Check.
4) Subject watches love interest sleep without her knowledge. Check.
5) Subject often tells love interest that he can “make” her do things through physical force if he wants to. Check.
6) Subject is controlling, makes all decisions in relationship. Check.
7) Subject is jealous of others (Jacob) speaking to subject. Check.

I’m not saying this is actually a bad thing, story-wise, but considering the rather revolting effect Eddie CullCull has on young girls, I’d hope they don’t grow up wanting to find a man who will be this pathetically (and frighteningly and criminally) devoted to them.

Vampires love to play baseball... by nature?

Okay. Time out. Freeze frame checklist:
1) You’re immortal.
2) You love baseball.
3) You live in Washington, so...
4) You have to root for the Seattle Mariners. Forever.

Bummer. At least he'll be alive in three hundred years when they win their first pennant.

Wow... plot developments. Didn’t see that coming. Turns out there’s a bad guy who wants to eat Bella... no really, that’s the plot development. I mean someone other than Eddie CullCull. I suppose it makes more sense in the abstinence parable that this film is thick with—he wants to eat her by force, whereas Eddie only wants to eat her if that’s what she wants (except that she wants him to, and he won’t do it). Of course, here’s where the parable gets a little muddy... since CullCull’s father bit him too.

Yeah, I know.

Murkier and murkier. Now the villain has bit Bella, and Eddie CullCull has bit villain after they drew kissing-close, snarling at each other. Hmmm...

After looking at the wiki on Twilight, I saw that the villain "James" won the Teen Choice Award for "Best Villain," and though I know the TCA's are inherently brainless, this still fills me with rage.

Let me list off the top of my head a number of 2008 films with better villains than Twilight:
The Dark Knight
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
Iron Man
Hellboy II
Pineapple Express
Slumdog Millionaire
Gran Torino

And don't try to pull that, "Well those are Rated R," line with me because they do nominate Rated R moves at the TCAs, and usually have some skanky star pole-dancing, just to dive home that it's not really a family show (it was hosted by Paris Hilton in 2005). What kills me is this: Twilight won fucking everything it was nominated for at the Teen Choice Awards, finally sealing my opinion that there is no hope for the generation below me.

HOLY FUCKING SHIT. So after we establish that Eddie and Bella are a poster couple for abusive relationships and Bella gets the shit kicked out of her and is nearly killed by CullCull, the excuse they give Bella’s mother is that she fell down a flight of stairs? What’s next? Will they suggest that she got bite marks on her throat from running into a doorknob? I mean the “fell down the stairs” joke even occurred to me earlier, but I’m not that crass. Stiffy Meyer, I take it back, you are a bad person.

And how about that whole section of Bella being unable to defend herself against her male attacker, James? Couldn’t she have even tried to do something other than pepper spray him? It seems the whole theme of this movie, targeted toward young girls, is that they can’t stand up to the will of men, and just have to channel it and hope for the best.

Somewhere, Gloria Steinem just popped a gusher of a nosebleed.

And yes ladies and gentlemen, the truth is finally out, Bella wants CullCull to eat her. And he wants to eat her too, in a well-lit gazebo in the middle of Prom—not the best place for a supernatural suicide pact but I guess you take what you’re given.

I have an alternate suggestion: Run you stupid girl! Run, run, run, run RUN. Get into your beat-ass red truck and gun the goddamn motor south until you reach Gilroy, California. They refine more garlic there than any other place in the world, and this psycho stalker couldn’t sniff you out with his crooked nose even if garlic didn’t make his eye sockets burn. Seriously Bella, there are shelters and support networks for women like you.


I didn’t hate Twilight like I thought I would. In fact, I had a hard time mustering a particularly strong reaction to it at all. Oh it was funny, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s just as undeserving of the legion of haters as it is its legion of fans. What really confuses me is why it’s so popular. The story is mediocre, the direction was competent but not really interesting and the writing was bland. The characters are especially weak, essentially being nonentities except for the dynamic between them. We hear about Edward’s love for baseball, ok, and his appreciation of music, but not much else. But what about Bella? She’s the main character, right? Actually, no. I’d argue that she’s kept as rudimentary as possible in order for the women reading or watching to project themselves onto her, so they themselves can get whisked away by a vampire. As terrible as I feel saying this, Twilight is basically passive fantasy role-playing for girls. This personal insertion into the story would explain why so many fangirls feel a connection with Edward, and love him with an intensity that ensures Rob Pattinson's lawyers will get rich off drafting restraining orders for years to come. All in all, I've never seen women lose their shit over a fictional character like this, other than Mr. Darcy. (Once in college, I made an ill-advised joke suggesting Mr. Darcy was visiting brothels on all his trips to London, and suddenly found myself facing down a meek little Morman girl who overheard and went reactor critical- jumping up from her chair and yelling about how I'd slandered Darcy's honor and that he would never, ever do such a thing. She calmed down when I pointed out that Darcy wouldn't be offended, since he was fictional, and that I doubted Big D would go whoring anyway, since he even found the relatively well-born Bennett sisters beneath him.)

What really bothers me about Twilight is the subtext.

Forget about the glaringly obvious abstinence metaphor for a bit, and you’ll realize that not only do Bella and Eddie CullCull not have a healthy relationship, but they don’t actually love each other for who they really are. Bella is intoxicated with CullCull’s mystique, and Eddie is drawn to her pheromones like a shaking junkie to a methadone clinic. Add to this the power discrepancy between them and Slick Eddie’s constant reminders that he could physically force her to do things she doesn’t want to, and the whole thing takes on a threatening air. Watch out girls! Men can overpower you at any time, so you better just go along with what they say, alright?

As a whole, the movie seems to treat men quite badly. Edward is an uncontrollable predator who stalks Bella and wants to kill her, describing his manners and charms as “snares designed to draw you in.” Essentially (since Eddie stands for all men) Stiffy Meyer is telling the ago-old lie that no matter how nice and charming the boy, he only wants one thing. Be careful girls! All men are predatory animals and you will never be safe.

Now I’m not naive, and will admit there’s some truth to that. Men, in general, do want sex, but that’s because our brains are a swirling cocktail of chemicals that make us so. Indeed, the same can be said for women, except it doesn’t jive with traditional gender norms, so instead Stiffy casts them as prey. (Willing prey, but prey nonetheless.)

Heavy-handedness toward men is all over this film—note how Bella wakes up in a hospital with her mother there, but no father. She asks for her mom to call her father in so that she can apologize for leaving him shattered by walking out with the same words her mother used during the divorce, but do we see that apology? Hell no, that’s not important! Bring on more abusive boyfriend! Why would we want to see Bella make up with dear old dad, when mom’s much more important? That shit can happen offscreen and be implied—we don’t want to impart a moral lesson about apologizing for hurting the ones we love, for Chrissakes! It's perfectly natural and expected for Bella to hurt everyone close to her in the name of puppy love! Frankly, Bella’s gruff, Chief-of-Police father is the only character that seems sane—when Eddie CullCull comes over, daddy starts cleaning his shotgun. Now that’s a man who’s got some sparks of life upstairs. Eddie's dad is pretty awesome too, portrayed by an actor with actual presence and a certain amount of gravitas, the kind of guy who knows the score, and is just too nice to point out that his son is in love with a giant black hole of neediness, attention-seeking, and selfishness.

Furthermore, don’t get me started on Bella’s friends, who are pretty diverse, but when it comes time to pick dates for the Prom, kids of the same race seem to snap together like magnets. There’s the Asian couple, the white couple, and the Black friend who’s seen dancing with a Black girlfriend. Hell’s bells, for a movie about inter-species romance you’d think they wouldn’t have a problem patching together some mixed-race couples—at least they wouldn’t be nibbling each others’ arteries like some people we know.

In the end, I declare victory. I was told that I was not able to mock Twilight until I had seen it or read the book, and I won by mocking it during the show.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sterilize my brain with bourbon.