2 (Halloween) Trips To The Movies (One Current, One Back): “Crimson Peak” (2015) and “Street Trash” (1986) 10.17.15

Guillermo del Toro sure has had his share fair of both hits and misses throughout his now 20+ year career making movies. He started off making films in his original country of Spain with his debut film — 1993’s “Cronos” — still my second favorite of all of his movies but more importantly the very first film that caught the eye of many people and put him on the international filmmaking spectrum. Then came his first English language film — the mostly lousy and disposable “Mimic” in 1997. Only for him to follow it with a film that found him going back to his native country, and what’s still tied for my favorite of his — 2001’s “The Devil’s Backbone” — which, for those of you who have seen it, would know that it was and still is a very solid entry to the horror genre. Then del Toro followed up another hit with another miss by coming back again to America to make the second entry in the “Blade” series (2002). Following this he put out his first of his two what I like to call “superhero” movies in “Hellboy” (2004) which, despite my unlikeness of the genre, was actually pretty entertaining with Ron Pearlman (a frequent del Toro collaborator) breathing new life into a somewhat unconventional superhero. Then came “Pan’s Labyrinth” which was his biggest box office and critical success yet – again, which had the writer/director shooting in Spain, and brought to audiences an incredibly unique and visually stunning film that wound up going on to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Oscars. “Pan’s Labyrinth” catapulted del Toro into legendary status, and if you look at almost anybody’s list of “best films post-2000”, you’ll find it on there. Then he returned back to America like most foreign directors do following an overseas hit and he made the second film — “Hellboy 2” — in his “Hellboy” series. A film, again much like the first one, which wasn’t necessarily the typical kind of film I like as it incorporated superheros but like the first one that I found myself having a lot of fun with. Then came 2013’s “Pacific Rim” — again another film I was apprehensive to see at first but because it was a “del Toro” film, I wound up seeing and that surprisingly impressed the shit out of me, and wound up on my Honorable Mentions list (10-20) of that respective year. Then came this film, which admittedly I thought looked like something that looked like a true visual feast for the eyes, similar to something like “Pan’s Labyrinth”, combined with a Gothic horror vibe that immediately caught my eye and piqued my interest. So I decided to see it opening weekend, like I do with most directors who have put out a couple or more works that I admire. Because I find myself chasing and hoping that I’m going to find something almost or equally as good as their best work.

The story revolves around Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist; who in an early impressive scene, is warned by her dead mother to beware of ghosts (or better put – “Crimson Peak”). The film then jumps 14 years later, to where Edith is now an adult, and she meets a young Aristocrat Thomas (the still relatively unknown but always impressive Tom Hiddleston), who’s visiting her father seeking investors, and whom she eventually falls for despite her father’s disapproval. You see the father thinks the young Thomas is a hack, and as with most wealthy families, particularly in the 19th century in which the film takes place, he forbids Edith from marrying Thomas. Thomas’ sister Lucille (played by the lovely but increasing “hi I’m in every movie” Jessica Chastain) is also seemingly against their relationship, but for reasons unknown except that they appears to have an almost incestual-like relationship. Completing this triangle of disapproval is Edith’s childhood friend now doctor, Dr. MicMichael (“Son’s of Anarchy”‘s Charlie Hunnam), who’s gut tells him there’s something sketchy about the relationship between Edith and Thomas. Despite everyone’s warnings, Edith moves to England and marries Thomas, and winds up in their rather mightily impressive mansion living together under the same roof as Thomas’ sister Lucille. This house is built on the red clay that Thomas, the investor, was initially trying to sell to gain investors. And well, at this point forward in the story, nothing really is as it seems.

“Crimson Peak” winds up reflecting many ideas, styles, and tones that are lifted from some of del Toro’s earlier works, particularly that of “Pan’s Labyrinth”, and is simply without a doubt his most “impressively looking” and shot film to date. I found myself in full on jaw gape mode as I looked at the many astounding set pieces and designs (both Edith’s own house that she’s shown living in as a child into adult and the house she moves to with Thomas in England) reminded me of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). Almost as if they were a separate character of their own. The stark use of vibrant colors with the “red clay” motif shot against the white snowy wintertime is a visual feast for the eyes. As was the creature makeup, which I personally found to wholly original and genuinely scary when we get the several sites of the ghosts in which Edith encounters throughout. It’s probably del Toro’s most visually impressive film to date, even more than “Pan’s Labyrinth”, and contains a visually arresting Gothic flair in both its production and costume design.

However, where it ultimately fails is in allowing much more for the story other than its technical components. Some of which I’ve listed above. The story is bogged down by a slightly weak and wooden sounding script co-written by del Toro. The actors themselves – Wasikowska, Hiddleston, Chastain, and Hunnuam all do their best but sound like their pulling too much weight off of their acting talents to try to elevate an otherwise weak script. As for the story, it’s a bit predictable as soon as the young investor Thomas courts the wealthy industrialist’s daughter Edith, the viewer will most likely be able to predict what direction it’s going to head in. It’s also a bit of a slo-burner, and takes much too much time overdeveloped story in which we can already predict after about the first half hour where it’s headed in.

In summation, it winds up being an exercise in style over substance. But if you, like me, like to look at the technical side of things and enjoy del Toro’s visually stunning set pieces, design, and costumes. Then you just might find it worth it for those reasons alone. It also retains a pretty nice “creep factor” throughout, and as mentioned above, the film’s creatures and ghosts are genuinely pretty scary and there’s quite a few well shot and executed “jump” scenes. And even despite a strong ending, where the naive Edith begins to learn the real story about her husband’s house and relationship with his sister and takes matters into her own hands, it still all comes at just a little too late. This is a worthwhile effort from del Toro simply because its most technically impressive film to date, but which barely makes up for a lack of a good story, plot or character development, and weak script. For diehard del Toro fans, this warrants a recommendation. But for others, they just might find its exercise in style over substance to be just a tad bit underwhelming.

[B-]

Guillermo del Toro’s – Crimson Peak

Saturday, Oct 17, 2015, 1:30 PM

St. Johns Twin Cinemas
8704 N Lombard St Portland, OR

9 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Synopsis: When her heart is stolen by a seductive stranger, a young woman is swept away to a house atop a mountain of blood-red clay: a place filled with secrets that will haunt her forever. Between desire and darkness, between mystery and madness, lies the truth behind Crimson Peak. From the imagination of director Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy”, “P…

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The second film of the day I caught as part of one my local $3 theatres in town – who are doing a welcomed tribute of horror Grindhouse films leading up to Halloween. These films, otherwise known at the time as being labeled “Exploitation” flicks, are known to be the cheap, artsy, made on a shoestring budget crop of films from decades ago. They’ve been described as the “gross”, “mean-spirited”, “ugly”, and “distasteful” films of their time. But along with that, there’s always been a very large underground demographic or resurgence of people (evidenced by the almost sold out showing I caught in Portland late Saturday night) who gravitate towards and really get into this type of thing. I for one have admittedly never been a big fan of the genre, but in trying to keep up with and being as much of a well-rounded student of film as possible, I try to keep myself interested in any and all types of films. And in the case of this film – I went out on a bit of a limb and took a chance in a type of film that I’m normally not used to. The kind of interactive, so bad it’s good, “B” film, that you kind of know what you’re getting yourself into, even if you’re even if like me, you’re slightly familiar with what to expect. These were and still are the types of midnight independent horror films you get together with your not for the faint of heart friends for while over a pitcher of beer and hoot, holler, and laugh at the grotesque and deplorable display of images that are being projected onto the screen. To give you a better idea of the “type” of film I’m talking about here was the more commercialized (if you even want to call it “commercial”) film that came out a few years back — Jesse Eisener’s “Hobo with a Shotgun” (2011) starring Rutger Hauer — a direct homage and paying tribute to pretty every “Grindhouse” picture to have come out before it. It’s maybe that I owe this picture some gratitude of debt in that it familiarized myself with and became interested in these lost hidden gems from a time long ago where people liked their films cheap, violent, and uncompromising. It’s like being a part of a movement, like the film equivalent of punk rock, where you think you may know but you never really do wind up knowing what to expect.

“Street Trash”, a picture I was previously unfamiliar with, wound up being a great late night Grindhouse feature that expertly blended elements of horror and comedy. It’s the type of film whose main purpose is to get the crowd interactively rowdy. The story itself is totally off-the-wall, as it involves a group of homeless people who inhabit the back of a junkyard (yep) and whose favorite liquor store owner happens to stumble upon a seemingly ancient crate of liquor which he dusts the cobwebs off of and sells the bottles each for a mere dollar. Creating a sort of buzz around the homeless community in where people start to buy the magical elixir in droves (a scathing commentary on Reagan-era American consumerism). And once said elixir is drank, it melts its victims into a gooey mess (yep, again). Which pretty much sums up the gist of its plot.

Like the title suggests, this is a trashy, grotesque, and vile affair. But one that does exactly what it sets out to do – which is to completely gross out the audience and make them both laugh and cry like the many of us who were in attendance did. So in this sense it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. This film had more violence, gore, gratuitous sex and nudity, and underlying humor, in almost anything I’ve seen in a while. Along with the crowd “interactive” aspect which is half of the fun. It wound up being a great slice of trash from the eighties which I’m sure was just as offensive then as it was now. Though this is not the type of film to be analytical about, it’s simply a film to have fun with, and if you can find it at the bottom of your going-out-of-business video store’s bargain bin, it might just be the most fun with a film you should feel bad for having had such a good time with. I know for me personally it’s a film and an experience that I will both never forget.

[B/B+]

A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Blue Velvet” (1986) 8.30.15

In continuing my ongoing streak of seeing older films by American directors that I admire. Films from the 3 most important American directors, that, as I’ve said before, have and still continue to have such an impact on me that it’s almost as if I have a relationship with them (and no not just in the movie sense). Even despite my thinking I’m well versed in both American writer/directors and foreign ones equally. There still have never been a set of directors that had more of an influence on me in developing my own personal vocabulary in relation to film as who I consider the “quintessential three”. Those being Stanley Kubrick (okay, he’s from the UK, but I still in some sense consider him, at least in his later period, as an American director because many of his films were made in the English language starring American actors. Then of course there’s Paul Thomas Anderson, who many of you might know just based on the simple fact that I’ve done a complete career retrospective of his films over the course of the summer. And last, but not least, someone who I consider maybe the greatest of them all – David Lynch. Now Lynch might seem like an easy choice for a favorite as anybody who is versed well enough in film can attest to his utterly original, singular voice, whose films have impacted legions of filmmakers that followed to have reworked Lynch’s ideas, themes, and style into works of their own. Which to me has always been the trademark sign of a great filmmaker. I could go on and on and on about my love for David Lynch and how his films have impacted me on such a deep level. But then I’d be writing a totally different piece. Not a movie review.

“Blue Velvet” opens with one of my favorite montages in movie history – set to Bobby Vinton’s rendition of “Blue Velvet”. Lynch immediately brings us into a world of red roses in front of a backdrop of a white picket fence house, a red fire truck with fireman waving at the screen, a set of upper middle class homes with their beautifully manicured lawns. But then the “contrast” begins, and he edits to a man watering his lawn who has a stroke and falls flat on his face. From there the camera zooms in underground, to what we “don’t see” from the surface. An underground severed human ear that’s infested with ants. To me, this opening sequence basically sets the tone for the rest of the film. As it is essentially a series of contrasts. You see Lynch knows it’s a beautiful world on the outside, and one gets the sense that it’s pretty genuine. But what’s so fascinating is his exploration into what lies underneath. The cruelty, sickness, perversion, and horror that lies beneath the surface of nice, clean, Caucasian, American middle class neighborhoods. Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern play the two leads, whose discovery of the severed human year leads them on an investigative journey that involves a nightclub singer, played by Isabella Rossellini, in what must have been one of the most bravest and courageous performances by an actress to date. Rosellini’s character we come to learn is wrapped up in a precarious and dangerous situation by Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper (who by the way demanded the role to Lynch because he said he needed to play the role because he “was Frank Booth”). Hopper, or shall I say Frank, is depicted in the film’s most shocking, disturbing, and violent scenes because well, he’s clearly a sadistic, over-sexualized, misogynistic, and overall dangerous man (maybe the most dangerous villain we’ve seen in film history-?). The investigation of MacLachlan and Dern’s characters follow the trail of breadcrumbs that Lynch expertly sets up for you. And really, what we get here in the subsequent story that follows is an investigation into the darkness and depravity of the underbelly of society. As the investigation runs deeper and deeper until all of those involved immerse themselves into a dark, sinister world that they can’t get out of.

This was and still is a bold, gripping, stylish, and highly controversial film that’s really only for the hardest of film aficionado’s who can appreciate and admire (but certainly not “enjoy”, unless your some kind of sadist) such a singular and unique piece of work. It’s filled with graphic sexual violence, particularly in the scene stealing scenes by Hopper, that combines an air of twisted mystery with an ironic, satirical look into America with a light, sometimes fluffy, stylized tone. Which speaks to this “contrast” between good and evil that I hinted at earlier. It’s repulsively strange (as are many of Lynch’s films) though given his tastes of depicting the avant-garde (or what we know to be avant-grade in cinema), is congruent with almost all of his other work. Particularly in the films that followed like 1988’s “Wild At Heart”, 1990’s TV series “Twin Peaks”, “Lost Highway” (1997), and Inland Empire (2006). Lynch doesn’t seem to care about what the audience thinks but more about his own instruction of them. It’s a masterful exercise in controlling the audience’s attention and planting a seed in their subconscious, which I think is at the heart of most of his work, and certainly in this film. It’s references are endless – to its “film noir” feel, to its Salvador Dali “look”, to the voyeuristic scenes involving both MacLachlan and Rossellini. Which to me anyway, seem like nods to Alfred Hitchcock (especially 1954’s “Rear Window”). It also features some of the most absurdist, iconic scenes ever imagined and put to screen (remember Lynch gets the majority of his ideas for his films from his subconscious and dreams). Dean Stockwell lip-synching to Roy Orbinson’s “In Dreams”, the Hopper/Rossellini rape scene, Rossellini’s rendition of “Blue Velvet” at a local jazz club while Hopper chews on a piece of blue velvet, MacLachlan getting beat to a pulp also set to Orbinson’s “In Dreams” while a prostitute dances atop a car, to Hopper ridiculing MacLachan’s choice in beer – “Fuck Heineken! PABST. BLUE. RIBBON!” (which incited the biggest reaction/laughter/clapping from the Portland crowd). This film is littered with such scenes, but despite these iconic scenes, one never gets the impression that Lynch is somehow trying to please the audience or entertain them, which I think is the strongest component of his films. Lynch’s films seem to want to exist outside of what we consider more accessible cinema and shows us sides of human nature that we pretend we don’t want to know exist, or at least don’t want to believe actually take place in our own neighborhoods that we deliberately tuck ourselves away from in hopes of keeping us safe (classic bourgeois mentality). But in reality, situations like this occur all the time. Even if so many of us have tried to remove ourselves far away from them in our own closeted, middle class lifestyle. Lynch shows here that violence doesn’t discriminate against socioeconomic class, as danger is imminent to us all even if we try to not think about it or turn a blind eye to it when it actually happens (“well, at least it didn’t happen to me”). This is without a doubt Lynch’s masterpiece, and also one of my top 5 to 10 favorite films of all time. Its influence and relevance is just as important today as it was almost 30 years ago. I’ll end with a simple quote from the film that I think sums it up quite nicely – “it’s a strange world, isn’t it?”.

[A+]

David Lynch’s – Blue Velvet

Sunday, Aug 30, 2015, 9:30 PM

Laurelhurst Theater
2735 E Burnside St Portland, OR

4 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Synopsis: Returning home to visit his father who is in intensive care at the hospital, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) stumbles upon a human ear he finds in a field. With police detective Williams and the local police department unable to investigate, Jeffrey and Sandy (Laura Dern), Detective Williams’s daughter decide to do their own investigat…

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Post Tenebras Lux” (“Light After Darkness”) (2012) 5.17.15

I noticed that this film was playing at a theater in town of which I think I talked about in a couple of other reviews. It’s Oregon’s “only student-run cinema” that shows films that are a bit different, avant-garde, art house, whatever you want to “label” them as. I personally always get excited when they announce their upcoming lineup each term of the school season, and I even mark a calendar for what films I plan to see. They’ve opened me up to a lot of new experiences with movies I would have never heard of if it hadn’t have been for them in the 8+ years I’ve been living in Portland. I was particularly interested in this one. As after having seen the trailer before another film I saw their recently, Harmony Korine’s brilliant and misunderstood “Spring Breakers” (2013), they showed a trailer for it where I learned a couple of things. For one, it won the “Best Director Award” at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas 4th trip to Cannes. It’s an award of the utmost highest prestige for any filmmaker, and one that certainly has some clout (just the year prior, Nicolas Winding Refn won for “Drive”). I’ve always felt like Cannes is especially good at choosing projects in certain categories, and knowing my love for directors and the “auteur theory”, this caught my attention. As it looked to be one of those sprawling films takes place all over the world and didn’t really have any kind of narrative thread that I could tell of, at least by the film’s trailer. It also stated that it evoked the works both the great American director Terrence Malick as well as Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Anybody that knows me knows that my affinity for both of these directors runs deep, particularly that of the former, so at the very least, I knew I was in for something that at the very least would be worthwhile from a challenge the moviegoer point of view.

The film starts off with a little girl (the real life daughter of Reygadas) playing on a farm on the verge of a thunderstorm with cows, horses, and dogs circling around her. She’s shown looking around in a state of marvel or wonder at the “life” she sees going on all around her. It’s the first in a sequence of loosely edited together “fragments” or sequences within the film. From here things go from strange to stranger, as we are introduced to several vignettes of different segments in which the viewer kind of has to connect the dots in order to make any kind of sense of what they’re watching (and just as a disclaimer – I don’t mean this as a bad thing). An AA meeting of some sort takes place, which quickly soon after jumps out of Mexico to England, where the camera brings us into a boy’s locker room as they prepare for a rugby game, to a Lucifer-like, red animated Devil figure with a toolbox who seems to be making house calls of some sort (the film is rich with ambiguous symbolism), to a bathhouse, where the little girl mentioned above’s mother and father, the two central characters of the film – Juan and Natalia partake in some rather deviant sexual activity. From there the film mostly carries on in this fashion. With Mexican villagers climbing the film’s gorgeously shot countryside (it quickly becomes apparent why Reygadas won the coveted Best Director prize) to scenes involving Juan and his nuclear family, and both back to the Lucifer-like hellish character, and finally back to the English boys playing rugby to act as the film’s rather loose and open-ended climax (if you even want to call it that) of the film.

This was somewhat of an endurance test even for someone like myself who (without sounding boastful) is a bit more versed in what people consider art house cinema than most. The film comes across as a sort of “expressionist” painting, which leaves us as a viewer, the audience, to try to make sense of what it’s trying to say. The first thing that was striking, at least to me, was the way in which the aspect ratio of the film was shot. Imagine those old “home movies” from the sixties that you see in films or on TV that show just a small square in the middle of the screen. Well, the entire film is shown in this ratio, apparently known as 4:3. Apparently done to achieve a look with a clearly framed center. But (and this is a tab bit hard to for me to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it) with the outside of the square box shown in distortion like you’re looking at something through a foggy glass window. This gives it the expressionist feel in which I spoke of above.

Now here’s my major critique of the film and my critique of film’s that are simply art for art’s sake in general. Without any sort of narrative arch or development of any of the characters within the story, I found it almost “too” abstract and too challenging to make any sort of sense of what was going on. Sure the cinematography was rather impressive, and I genuinely did enjoy what I made out to be the film’s rich symbolism when taken its fragmented scenes and tried to put them together. What did each character represent though, and what was the film trying to say? Even for a hardcore art house film enthusiast such as myself, I found that I was constantly questioning why the director consistently transported us from one location to the next, without any outward meaning or semi explanation at least on a surface level. I’ll end by saying that I’m a big fan of the Swedish art house director of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), who may be the greatest filmmaker within the art house genre of all time. But even despite his loose interpretations and symbolic leanings, there was always, even with Bergman’s more artistic endeavors, I always felt like there was some semblance of understanding on my part. Which, despite of the undeniably impressive cinematography on display here, the interpretation seemed like that of a Rorschach Test, and admittedly, there has to be a point somewhere in where I draw the line, which wound up being the case with this film.

[C+]

DVD Review: “Listen Up Philip” 3.13.15

This particular movie piqued my interest after having seen it wind up on many of last year’s top 10 lists from quite a few film critics. A movie that virtually seemed to fall under the radar by most yet even despite of its positive reviews. These are the exact types of films that I thrive on seeking out. As a lot of the time when I take a chance with something that I know little to next to nothing about, I sometimes come away feeling a great sense of having found that hidden gem that I can then spread the word about to the film aficionado friends that I know. If it winds up being disappointing…well, that’s not what really matters. It’s the hope of seeing something new and exciting that drives me to want to see a film that some may hold in a high regard that goes unseen by most if not all of the American public. Such was the case with this film. It played in a very limited release at one of our more local art house, independent cinemas here in Portland that only showcases the kinds of films that fall into this particularly kind of category. That and I’ve always been quite fond of the film’s lead, Jason Schwartzman, having feeling like I’ve almost seemingly grown up right alongside him when he wowed both audiences and critics a like with his breakthrough debut performance in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” (1998), which was a major movie for me in terms of my starting to develop an appreciation for both the art of film and its language. I also was intrigued by the film’s supporting cast which boasted Elizabeth Moss (who seems to be showing up everywhere lately, most notably in last year’s trippy SciFi romantic comedy/mindfuck – “The One I Love”) whom I also loved in one of the most underrated, overlooked, and unseen made for cable miniseries – Australian filmmaker Jane Campion’s fantastic murder mystery “Top of the Lake” (2013) which gave me a much deeper appreciation for Moss who won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Miniseries for her performance in it. Rounding out the impressive cast was the great Bristish stage and screen actor Jonathan Pryce, who has and will always stick out for me from his lead performance in Terry Gilliam’s undisputed masterpiece “Brazil” (1985). This looked to be one that had the potential to be of great promise, considering the actors involved and the great reviews I had glanced at about it.

The titular character, Philip (played by Schwartzman), is a New York City writer who at first seems so obsessed with himself, so self-absorbed, that he comes across as highly unlikable (think Jeff Daniels’ in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) ). He’s a bigot, arrogant, pretentious, and narcissistic. One of those better than everyone young writer types who on the heels of having only published one novel to date but who got critical acclaim for, thinks he’s gods gift to just about everybody he meets. But what’s different from his character than say the Jeff Daniels comparison, is that he’s well aware of all of these things, and we as the viewer are informed of this, throughout most of the film actually, in a brilliant voice over narration by none other than the Eric Bogosian (in what I found to be some of the better use of voiceover since Alec Baldwin’s work on another Schwartzman film – Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) ). It seems like every relationship, from Philip’s ex to his now current girlfriend (Moss) is doomed for failure. As he is not willing to recognize anybody’s else’s accomplishments rather than that of his own. Which makes him a likely candidate for most difficult person to be in a relationship with. He does however find solace in another writer Ike (played by the excellent Pryce), an aging writer who has seen his day, and who like Philip, is so selfish that he willfully seems to push away just about every person in his life. The two are almost mirror images of one another. And when Ike invites Philip to his summer home in upstate New York to escape the ever-growing and anxiety ridden demands of the big city life, Philip jumps at the opportunity to stay with his mentor, as he attempts to get his second novel published.

The film winds up being a mostly enjoyable dramedy, with elements of both dark humor and serious drama as the screenplay really attempts to give us, the viewer, full access into the world of Philip and the two different sides in which he projects – his overly confident, cocky exterior as well as the self loathing and deprecation that’s going on in the interior. Schwartzman handles the role rather deftly, and proves to his once again why he has the residual staying power that he’s had as an actor, despite having a number of notable films under his belt and still being as young as he is. The script and story itself reminded me of something out of the Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, and Wes Anderson cannon. In that there’s a sad, underlying tone with moments of great comedy on display. Juggling several genre elements all jumbled up into one rather remarkably. Which is a testament to its writer director, Alex Ross Perry, who has a couple of features under his belt but this seeming like essentially his debut film, which is mightily impressive given that he is barely 30 years old. The script is razor-sharp, smart, witty, and darkly funny. And came across as being more deeply rooted in reality than a lot of the other increasing number of films that I’ve seen from this genre as of late. While we look at Philip’s character with disdain, there’s also a human element that resides within him that comes across as universal, authentic, and real. This wound up being a mostly rewarding experience, even if it did wind up feeling slightly familiar at times to films like the ones of early Woody Allen. Recommended for those interested in the independent, romantic dramedy genre looking for something new and fresh and for fans of Schwartzman. As this one should have raised a few more eyebrows than it did, and at least to me, seems like it should have gotten quite a bit more attention than it ultimately wound up getting.

[B]

Review: “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” 1.25.15

In what was amongst a dozen foreign films that I had been anticipating that came out last year, comes acclaimed Japanese director Sion Sono’s latest, whom I had really only been familiar with from his 2010 effort – “Cold Fish”, which basically encapsulated everything I loved and do love about Asian cinema. It was a warped and depraved look at one very weak man’s undeliberate affiliation with the Yakuza (Asian Mob). It resembled something akin to Takashi Miike’s “Ichi The Killer” (2001) (still considered in my opinion to be one of the best examples of what is true art house Asian cinema). That and it had some rather funny comedic undertones that aren’t usually found from films of this region of the world. At least from the genre in which it came from. Then came the release of Sono’s newest – the overtly titled “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?”. I had really wanted to see this film with an audience (“Cold Fish” was so bat shit crazy in its depiction of extreme violence and nihilism I could only imagine what it would have been like seeing with a large group of people) but since it had a very short one week engagement here in Portland I never got the opportunity to. That being said, I had this one queued up on my Netflix queue and had been highly looking forward to seeing it as soon as it came out on DVD.

Sion Sono’s newest (I just recently discovered this guy’s been around making films for 30 years) revolves around a rag-tag group of teenagers called the “Fuck Bombers” who go around town with their amateur video equipment trying to capture every crime, fight, or illegal activity that takes place (think J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8”). They’re just like any other novice film crew – their ambitions seem to be much higher than their actual talent. One day they catch a fight among the two Yakuza families in town. And in atypical fashion the families let the cameras roll allowing the kids unprecedented access to their first ringside seat in which they’re able to capture it all on film. Meanwhile another plot device pops up, one involving a flashback where the daughter of one of the heads of the two families, named Mitsuko, who is widely known not just because of her affiliation of being in a Mob family, but because as a toddler she was featured in a toothpaste commercial (the last part surprisingly important as it comes up multiple times throughout the course of the film). During one chance encounter the young Mitsuko comes home one day to find that her house has been infiltrated with the “Ikegami” Yakuza clan. Except her rival mob boss father, head of the “Muto” clan, doesn’t happen to be home, and her mother basically wipes out every member of the clan and leaves the boss of the Ikegami clan for dead. Except he lives. We then jump forward 10 years later…the Fuck Bombers are still trying to find their big break in moviemaking, Mitsuko is currently being held captive by the Ikegami clan as a truce between the two families has been broken, and Muto (Mitsuko’s mob boss father) is trying desperately to rescue his daughter so that she can play a big part in a movie which he thinks will be the ultimate gift to his wife, now serving 10 years in prison for wiping out the almost entire Ikegami clan. Mitsuko does escape and enlists the help of a random guy on the street named Jiro, who she buys out to be her boyfriend for the day in order to try to help ensure her escape. Once reunited with her father Muto who tries to kill Jiro in thinking that Jiro is part of the opposing clan, hoping to save his life she tells her father that the unsuspecting Jiro is actually a famous film director, and is ready to make his “masterpiece” with her as the star, in turn saving his life. Jiro enlists the help of the now twenty somethings Fuck Bombers to try to help him make the film Mitsuko’s father demand he makes or he dies. This is the central story and plot that makes for the rest of the film as Jiro masks as a director and with the help of the Fuck Bombers film crew he sets out to make an amateur film that promises Mitsuko’s mob boss father that this will be the dream role that he’s been waiting for his daughter.

“Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” winds up being a smorgasbord of different ideas all wrapped up into one. Never relenting in its execution or letting us forget that we’re at the hands of one of Asian cinema’s most unapologetic, creative, and original directors right alongside Takashi Miike, Chan-wook Park, Takashi “Beat” Kitano, Joon-Ho Bong, Kim Jee-woon, Yimou Zhang, and Stephen Chow, with a splash of Quentin Tarantino. At the heart it feels like the director’s homage to moviemaking, as once the Fuck Bombers are employed to film the two rival Yukuza clans, we’re thrown into every process of what it requires to make a film. It’s wild and unpredictable (trust me when I say nobody is making films like this guy) and goes beyond the borders of what we know to be even remotely conventional filmmaking. What we have here is essentially a film within a film. As along with the Fuck Bombers film crew the viewer is allowed access into DIY access into the proceedings. It’s a uproariously fun, violent, unrelenting, bizarre, deranged, utterly insane crazy universe that the director creates and stays prominent in feel and tone for its entire running time. My one complaint was where his last film felt more like a serious crime drama thriller, this lays the comedy pretty thick, at times reminiscent of a hyper violent Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle”) film. Its shift toward this about halfway in comes a little unexpected and in my opinion it could have been just a good of a film without all the underlying black comedy. The last thing I should point out is the entire last half hour of the film is so batshit crazy and excessively violent it makes the bar scene with Uma Thurman from “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003) or the ending battle in last year’s “Dead Snow 2” look restrained and tame. So if you’re the type of person like me that’s into this kind of material, especially fans of foreign and Asian cinema, you’ll have a rollicking good time. Everyone else might have a hard time getting into this sort of thing.

[strong B]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Nightcrawler” 12.7.14

This was the second to last of my crop of movies to see to wrap up the end of 2014. The other being Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” which is scheduled to be released here in Portland later this month. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” doesn’t open here until January, so unfortunately it’s just going to miss the cut and therefore won’t be considered as a 2014 release even though it’s already opened in NY and L.A. I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding this one, and like I do with pretty much every movie I know I’m going to see these days, especially those in the theater, I shut myself off from talking to anyone who’s seen it, didn’t watch any trailers, nor did I read any reviews. As I’ve found this new approach walking into a movie with a total clean slate has made my moviegoing experiences a lot more exciting since I implemented it at the start of the year. To be truthfully honest I saw this film merely because of genre and the few blurbs I had stumbled upon unintentionally about it. But even more importantly because it was a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Who since 2009’s “Prince of Persia” seems to be doing everything right in terms of picking projects that he seems to find interesting, seemingly without a care in the world for what’s going to draw the people to the box office or what’s going to earn him the most money. In fact, I am so impressed by Gyllenhaal’s career trajectory since then that he has slowly inched his way into my top 5 favorite actors currently working in the film business today. He has put out one string of good films after another over the past few years. Which started in 2011 with Duncan Jones’ (“Moon”) brainy Sci Fi trip “Source Code”, then David Ayer’s (“Fury”) 2012 “End of Watch”, and the back-to-back films he’s done with French director Denis Villenueve in last year’s “Prisoners” and this year’s “Enemy”. The latter two performances which I considered to be right up there with Gyllenhaal’s best, if merely from an acting stand point. Sure he’s done some other great films like Richard Kelly’s cult hit “Donnie Darko” (2001) and David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007). Those are certainly great films in their own respect. However up until this point in his career never has he been so consistently good. I personally thought he was nabbed of a Best Actor nomination last year for “Prisoners”. As I truly thought it was one of his strongest, most compelling performances to date. Then after having seen “Enemy” earlier this year and loving both the film and his performance as much as I did, I vowed to myself that I would pretty much see anything that he’s attached to from this point forward in his career. Then came the second Gyllenhaal film this year, “Nightcrawler”, a film that once again looked like it had the potential to be yet another great film from an actor who over the last few years has proven that you really can’t go wrong with seeing whatever this undeniably gifted young actor does next. It is because of my strong affinity for Gyllenhaal as an actor that I decided to catch this one while it was still playing in theaters, as I heard a very strong response to both the film itself and his performance.

We are first introduced to Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou, a man living in L.A. who is desperate for a job and is willing to take just about anything he can get. He seems to have zero qualifications or any kind of prior job experience but proclaims that he’s a “hard worker” to the employers he tries to persuade to give him a job, any job, at the start of the film. He seems to have no family, girlfriend, kids, or anything that would link him to the rest of the world. Except for the fact that he’s smart, persistent, and has a considerable amount of drive and ambition. One night he stumbles upon an accident and has a sort of epiphany as he sees the race of the reporters desperate to cover whatever story happens to be the biggest one of the night. Gyllenhaal’s Lou then decides that this is his calling and what he wants to do with his life. So he grabs a cheap camera and police scanner and begins to crack the codes of police dispatchers calls in hopes that he will be the first one in line to capture footage of whatever break out news story happens to be going on any given night. It is here that he meets his adversary in the form of Bill Paxton, a fellow freelance reporter who is the man who seems to have broken down this method of beating the cops to the scene of the crime or accident, all in hopes of capturing whatever footage he can get so that he can be the first to sell it to whichever news station will pay him the most for it. On one unsuspecting evening he documents a grisly scene of a murder, and gets his first taste of the potential of his newfound endeavor through a local news station whose director, played by Rene Russo, gives him his first paycheck and the promise of much more money to come if he sticks with it. Lou then begins to slowly fine tune his craft with the addition of a new camera, fire-red mustang, and an intern whom he hires on to help him become faster and more proficient in his almost addictive-like quest to get to the scene of the crime first, and over time he succeeds at doing so. And is in turn employed full-time by Rene Russo’s news station to bring them a story, night after night, which in turn increases his drive and ambition to be the absolute best freelance reporter in all of L.A. Then one night, he stumbles upon a scene of extreme violence and its aftermath, a pivotal scene that goes on to drive the rest of the film and the events that unfold after it.

This was a spectacular film that exceeded my moderate to high expectations. Throughout it made me think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (2011) which I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to and who ironically enough I came to find after was produced by the same team as it. Mainly because I felt like part of the beauty of it lay in its subtext. Some people will view the film, much like “Drive”, as a straight ahead action-thriller. Which is fine and all. But underneath it all in its subtext I thought it was trying to say something much deeper than what appeared to be at its surface. Oddly enough I looked at it as something similar to that of “Scarface”. About having the drive and ambition in the pursuit of the American dream and wanting to be at the very top by whatever means necessary. Every decision Gyllenahaal’s character does seems to be driven by Capitalist thought. He becomes so incredibly obsessed with the prospect of delivering the next best news story that he’ll do just about whatever it takes even at the expense of those of others around him. Gyllenhaal once again amazes with his spellbinding performance in which he totally immerses himself into his character and puts on one hell of a show. His sunken face (apparently he lost a considerable amount of weight for this film) and beady eyes that look like they’re going to pop out of his head make him look like some kind of insect and acts as one of the many ways of reading into the film’s title. But besides the transformative piece he also really brings a certain depth and range to his character that border lines on someone with a serious mental illness who falls so deep into his craft that he begins to flirt with insanity. A character that brings to mind the late great Robin Williams in 2002’s “One Hour Photo” or better yet even, Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorcese’s masterpiece – “Taxi Driver” (1976). He delivers thoughts, ruminations, and words at a mile a minute and comes across as a likely candidate for someone with Autism or Asburger’s Syndrome. It’s a piece of method acting that truly shows his incredible range as an actor. The story itself is utterly and completely captivating from start to finish and has a great sense of pacing. As while on his quest to capture the best news stories the film becomes highly riveting, tense, and psychological. Not to mention that it seems incredibly dark for a studio film (much like “Prisoners” was). His physical and internal transformation is simply an awe to watch. As he starts off as a nobody and brings himself on some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy to uncover the truth, he becomes almost blinded by the world around him and loses his sense of self and identity, turning into some kind of monster. The supporting turns by both Bill Paxton and Rene Russo were also perfectly cast, and help anchor Gyllenhaal’s astonishing performance. This is a film that worked for me on a lot of levels, but mostly in the “can’t look away” turn by Gyllenhaal, that should garner him at least a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, if not an Academy Award nomination. Like “Enemy”, this is the second Jake Gyllenhaal film to totally blow me away this year, and is also his second film to likely wind up making my top 10 best films of 2014. This film both shook and rattled me and had me thinking long after the credits rolled. Which in the humble opinion of this writer, only the best ones seem to do.

[that sweet spot between a B+ and A-]