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.