Sunday, May 30, 2010

Black Rain (Scott 1989)

After the disappointment of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010), both as entertainment and as art, it was interesting to dip back into the work of Scott with Black Rain, a 1989 police thriller starring Michael Douglas. While a heavily flawed film, featuring lapses in logic and pulling out nearly every cop film cliché in the book, Black Rain is also a film which serves as a reminder as to just how visually powerful Scott’s work can be, especially in his 1980s heyday. Unfortunately, the impressive visuals also happen to go along with a confused and conflicted cultural and political subtext that borders on being xenophobic.

Black Rain’s narrative is the stuff of typical police thrillers: New York police officer Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) is under investigation by internal affairs, when he witnesses the slaying of a Yakuza member in a restaurant along with his partner Charlie (Andy Garcia). The killer is another Japanese criminal, whom they capture. Forced to return the criminal to Japan, Conklin and Charlie act as curriers, only to accidentally turn the killer over to his own fellow criminals. Looking to make up for the mistake, Conklin and Charlie are forced to work with a Japanese detective named Masahiro (Ken Takakura), with the usual cross cultural misunderstandings taking place as they take to the streets to crack the case.

While the film is a police thriller, the real concern of the film is with the increasingly encroachment of capitalism, industrialism, consumerism and conformity upon the world, with Japan, and by extension its citizens, being a culture representative of these elements within the world of the film. Visually, Japan in the film is an industrial nightmare of oppressive buildings and advertisements,suppressing the personal for the supposed sake of society as a whole. Given this, it is no surprise that the opening image of the film is of the red sun of Japan’s flag being overlaid on a globe of the world, the first indicator of the film’s near racist paranoia of cultural invasion through globalisation. If not racist, the film is at the very least reductive in its portrayal of Japanese society and culture, playing up the noted “-isms” to the negation or submersion of other cultural attitudes and elements which make up Japanese society.

The fear of these “-isms” is given voice by Conklin, a detective who is something of a throwback to the cowboys of American mythology with his repeated resistance to “suits,” by any-means-necessary approach to policing, and visually in his navigation of urban, industrial spaces with his modern horse, a motorcycle. Conklin’s resistance to the forces of capitalism stems from a fear of being emasculated: divorced and attempting to keep his kids in private schools, Conklin has turned to occasionally skimming from the criminals he captures to function in the society he finds himself in. Conklin’s arrival in Japan places him in a society which, as already noted, has become a symbol for all these elements, increasing his feelings of distress and giving his rage a racist dimension as he becomes angered at the attempts to sideline him in the investigation.

In a different and much smarter film, Conklin’s behaviour and rage would have been explored while giving room to the possibility that his anger towards the noted “-isms” have a legitimate root. The narrative trajectory of Black Rain however is one in which the East and West move closer to one another, as represented in the relationship between Conklin and Masahiro, and as a result the film attempts to suppress or negate the thematic concerns with mixed results. An example is the way in which the film addresses the issue of Conklin’s theft from the criminals he captures, where Conklin explains that his theft was motivated by the needs of his family. While the film rightfully doesn’t allow this to justify Conklin’s behaviour, Conklin’s reasons and sense of emasculation in his inability to perform well in a consumerist society does hold a grain of legitimate criticism.


However, such issues are brushed aside in the final as Conklin finally comes to wear a suit himself, now officially having “bought” into the mentality he has thus far detested. The film even goes a step further in having Conklin give a gift to Masahiro of a high end suit shirt (along with a certain plot device). Handled differently, this moment could have been a note of ambiguity, but instead, Scott presents the moment as one of bonding and light heartedness, failing to take note of the question of just how Conklin is, in his newfound state of being a brainwashed consumer, able to make his way without needing to steal. Instead, we are expected to simply accept this for the “happy” moment it is.

The film is also unable to rectify Conklin’s supposed transformation with the oppressive nature of the capitalist society, as visualized by the endlessly dominating cityscape of the film. The film never manages to convincingly give Conklin power over his environment, and thus instead allows him to regain a sense of masculine authority by being able to engage in his cowboy antics in an open, rural environment which descends into a one on one battle between Conklin and the film’s villain. Given this, Conklin more or less lucks out in being given an opportunity to police his way rather than successfully demonstrate any ability to function in the world around him. As such, the ending “transformation” is made all the more hollow and artificial, and more over, upholds an American sense of law enforcement and justice over the approach taken by the Japanese police in the film.


While the finished film is a thematic mess, upholding the values of capitalism, consumerism and industrialism while at the same time giving a half hearted critique of them, one could at least hope for a cohesive thriller narrative. Unfortunately, even the basic narrative is something of a mess, with lapses in logic, plot holes, plot conveniences and typical police procedure clichés. Given that Conklin is under investigation by internal affairs as the film starts, the very idea that he would even be allowed to leave the country is questionable, and the film’s subplot involving Kate Capshaw as an American bar tender in Japan serves little purpose beyond keeping the plot moving and giving Conklin some sort of romantic foil. Seeing as how the film never actually manages to give any screen time to this supposed romance however, it instead feels like a tacked element from another script, and the idea that Capshaw’s character would honestly be as well connected to the Yakuza as she is defies all sense of logic.

The film is furthermore done no favours in having Michael Douglas in the lead. While Douglas does capture the emasculated side of Conklin, Douglas performance more often than not is not that of a man raging against the world around him, so much as it comes across like a child throwing a temper tantrum. A scene is which Conklin supposedly gets down to business by searching a crime scene for clues is particularly glaring, as Conklin, without any rhyme or reason, merely starts destroying the area in broad sweeping gestures. Scenes such as this occur often in the film, and raise questions as to why he has any respect on the force at all, as there is clearly no real method to his approach. Thankfully, the rest of the cast aside from Douglas is able to keep the film afloat, though no one is given much to do in the film.

As much as I am ripping the film apart, there is one thing which ultimately holds the film together and makes it worth at least a rental, that being Ridley Scott’s visuals. Working with director of photography Jan De Bont, Scott creates a world that is utterly beautiful in just how bleak it is, mixing rich blacks and neon colour together in their representation of the city of Osaka. Every frame of this film is simply a stunner to look at, layered and full of life, even in the starkest of scenes. While it certainly doesn’t forgive the film’s other faults, the visual power of the film was such that I often was willing to go with the narrative just because of how beautiful the film looked. For those with Blu-ray players and HDTVs, Black Rain is worth every penny to see how good a film from that era can look.

Still, I can hardly make an honest recommendation of Black Rain beyond those fans of Scott. The film is simply too thematically confused and lacking in anything to make it engaging to be worth watching. The same however, cannot be said for another 1989 film looking at commercialism and consumerism: How to Get Ahead in Advertising, the film to be reviewed in the next few days.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

UPDATE: June Plans

Hey folks!

After the disaster that has been May, June is shaping up to be a much stronger month. Several reviews are already in the works, and should be posted soon.

Will keep you updated.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Robin Hood (Scott 2010)

It has taken me three separate attempts to try and figure out how to talk about Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood in some sort of meaningful way. Each attempt has led me down a different path, considering the film in a variety of contexts in hopes of trying to understand just where the film goes wrong. After picking apart the film, turning it over in my head, and going over my experiences with Ridley Scott’s body of work, I have come to only one conclusion: Robin Hood is the first Ridley Scott film that is completely paint by numbers from start to finish. The paint by numbers set might be the one Scott designed himself, but paint by numbers is still paint by numbers.

At the start of the last decade, Scott kicked things off on a relative high with Gladiator (2000), a film that was a solid piece of old fashion sword and sandals filmmaking that was not Scott’s best work, but was certainly worthy of viewing. Gladiator provided an interesting, if conflicted, reflection of the place of violent spectacle in society, giving it slightly more depth than it might have otherwise had. Little over half a decade latter, Scott again returned to the large scale epic with Kingdom of Heaven (2006), which in its true director’s cut form is a more fascinating work than Gladiator, with even greater technical skill demonstrated on the part of Scott.

Now at the start of a new decade, Scott delivers his Robin Hood, and from start to finish, the film plays out like a desperate attempt to reclaim the past glory of Gladiator for both Scott and star Russell Crowe, as they transform the English legend into a tale which follows Gladiator almost beat for beat: a weary soldier wishes to return home, only upon his eventual return finds himself becoming a hero of the people and drawn into the political games of a self absorbed and childish ruler who has just inherited the throne. Unfortunately, Robin Hood is neither a refinement of the earlier work, nor does it expand the themes in any significant way. Instead, their efforts to recreate Gladiator only succeed in doubly damning the film, as the film not only fails to live up to Gladiator, but fails to work as a tale of Robin Hood as well.

If Scott and Crowe were so determined to recreate Gladiator, than one has to wonder why the duo bothered with Robin Hood at all. The legend has always felt more in line with superheroes than it does with grand scale epics. The stories are often episodic in nature, focusing on a band of outlaws who not only rob from the rich and give to the poor (an activity which only happens once in Scott's film I might add), but set out to humiliate a corrupt government and defend the defenseless while hiding out in the forest. Yes, they were military men, and a film focusing on that part of their lives might have been interesting. However, the approach in this film of making Robin a contemplative soldier who yearns to be free of violence only succeeds in transforming the character into one of a million similar characters to populate cinema in recent years.

In an odd way, this homogenized version of the Robin Hood character is encapsulated in the film's action scenes, which are as skillful and professional as any Scott has directed. However, the one thing Robin Hood is known for, if nothing else, is that he uses a bow and arrow. While this weapon of choice does make appearances throughout the film, more often than not time is spent focusing on Robin in sword based combat. One of the key plot points in the film even is about the passing down of a sword from father to son, a sword which ultimately ends up in the hands of Robin. While the passing on of a sword may be more historically accurate (I assume here, but am more than willing to be corrected), given that this is Robin Hood we are talking about, a focus on his weapon of preference would not only have been welcome, but at least give the film something to distinguish it from similar films. Not much of a distinguishing mark mind you, but still a distinction.

The biggest problem with the film however is just how vapid it is. The film is void of any real subtext or meaning, stating so many of its themes and ideas outright that it never gives the audience a chance to think for itself. Yes, it is a summer blockbuster, but it is no excuse. Scott has made vastly intelligent films before without sacrificing intelligence. Even the commentary on violent spectacle in Gladiator was of some interest, even if the film was guilty of the very thing it was criticizing.

I should point out at this point that Robin Hood is not terrible. The film is beautifully shot by director of photography John Mathieson (who surprisingly does not use of the colour blue that often this time out, a possible first in a long while for Ridley Scott), and the cast of the film is uniformly excellent. The problem is just that so much of what is here feels like warmed over seconds rather than a bold creative venture for those involved. Ridley Scott has been long known for tackling pretty much every genre under the sun, usually with a high level of ambition, so to see him rest on past success is more disheartening than anything else.

While general audiences will likely be pleased, fans of Ridley Scott are more than likely to be disappointed in the final effort, while fans of Robin Hood are likely to just be angry with the film overall. Judge where ye stand well, and go forth and make ye decision.


Had the chance to see Robin Hood tonight, and have delayed my Iron Man 2 till I finish Robin Hood, which I have quite a bit to say about.

Monday, May 24, 2010


Ok, this month has turned into something of a write off for reviews, thanks to the move (meh), work (crap), and general all around being busy. However, I have watched a few films as of late, and should have the first review up LATE tomorrow. If not, I do have one classic review to tie things over till then.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (Herzog 2009)

The narrative of Noah’s Ark is one which has left a great imprint upon Western culture, as its imagery of a world being purified of evil by a great flood has offered a striking mix of apocalyptic imagery and hope for people to tap into. It is this narrative that serves as the vital intertext for Werner Herzog’s 2009 black comedy crime drama Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, as the film is set in the wake of the titular city’s near destruction from Hurricane Katrina. Port of Call - New Orleans however is anything but a modern run through of the Noah’s Ark story, instead subverting the original story as the “purifying” flood leaves behind only the corrupt and the impoverished innocent to rebuild the city.

Port of Call - New Orleans follows a lieutenant named Terrance McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), who suffers from an injured back resulting from his saving a criminal from drowning in a jail cell. Due to the fact that his back pain will last an indefinite length of time, likely for the rest of his life, McDonagh is prescribed pain killers, which he quickly abuses before moving onto harder drugs. As his addiction grows, McDonagh finds himself dealing with a murder case, an out of control gambling debit, a hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendez) who makes a well connected enemy, and an alcoholic father with and equally addicted step wife.

While hardly an art film, Port of Call - New Orleans is a film which actively works against traditional narrative structure and storytelling, rejecting concepts of cause and effect in order to present a tale of a man and city that, while progressively becoming more obvious in how twisted and corrupt they are, don’t progress or regress so much as remain stagnate in their state of failure. Characters pay lip service to change, and some seek to change the city, but it is all hollow: things are only able to get better enough to allow the real problems go unaddressed. This is encapsulated in a particularly hilarious and tragic moment when McDonagh’s girlfriend says that she is going to an AA meeting to sober up, but proceeds to say a moment later that she is open to possibly getting high with McDonagh afterwards. Moreover, the film is book ended by scenes which embody the meaning of the words “failing upwards,” underlining how futile the possibility of salvation is in the world of the film. Thus, the film is of a counter point to the salvation narrative of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 crime drama Bad Lieutenant, which Port of Call - New Orleans is only superficially associated with in regards to content.

While this material could easily have transformed into a grim and depressing work, Herzog instead takes the material into an openly comedic terrain, bringing a detached and ironic tone to the film as we watch the increasingly absurd existence of McDonagh. The approach simultaneously manages to make the material palitable as well as highten the sense of tragedy, as moments of real horror rise to the surface of the film to contrast the overall humour. Herzog populates the film with a cast of characters equal in their flaws and insanity to McDonagh, transforming the New Orleans setting into a world misunderstandings, delusions, posturing and self absorbed behaviour, where characters find nostalgic magic in what appears to be a heroin stained spoon, and lucky crack pipes indeed seem to bring a demented sense of luck to their owners.

Speaking of lucky crack pipe owners, Cage is in fine form here as McDonagh. McDonagh isn’t so much a bad man as he is a pathetic one, being just human enough to avoid being a total monster, but just out of his mind enough to tether his sense of masculinity to his job as a police officer. McDonagh’s moments of extortion, excessive violence and outright theft are little more than attempts to show off his worth as a male to himself, a point underlined when he claims that a man without a gun isn’t a man. Cage’s performance takes on an increasingly unhinged quality, marked by shifts in vocal and physical performance over the course of the film. McDonagh transforms into a type of hunchbacked oddity typically found in a Universal horror film of the 1930s and 1940s, making his ability to function in the world at all increasingly baffling and comedic.

Mendez heads up a fine supporting cast, but isn’t given much to do beyond playing off of Cage as her character increasingly falls into the bizarre world of McDonagh’s father and step mother. Of greater note is Jennifer Cooliage as McDonagh’s step mother Genevieve. While a small roll, Genevieve is the closest thing to a truly human character in the film. While as much an addict as every other character, Genevieve is the only one whom seems to understand how sad and pathetic everyone’s existence in the film is, but takes some comfort in her attempts to understand and connect with her step son. Xzibit as the gangster sitting at the center of the murder case is fine, though the role never gives him the opportunity to flex much acting muscle, while Brad Dourif and Val Kilmer turn in solid performances in what are primarily extended cameos.

If the film belongs to anyone other than Cage however, it is director Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, who both walk a fine line between grounding the film while giving it a visual sense of a drug haze. The film is never quite subjective or objective in its point of view, frequently bouncing between McDonagh’s view point to a more observational view of events as we move from a handheld, documentary style to carefully composed shots. Herzog and Zeitlinger furthermore take full advantage of the New Orleans setting, allowing the stark and ruined streets and buildings seep into the frame, constantly imbuing the film with a sense of the real life chaos and impoverishment to play out before the audience.

While I personally find no fault with the film, Port of Call - New Orleans will likely be off putting to those expecting a traditional drama or thriller of the Hollywood mould. While highly entertaining, the film is one which in part asks the viewer to find humour in a series of volatile and shocking behaviour carried out by one man, and the film never once includes a condemnation of this behaviour within the narrative itself. It is a film where filmmakers expect the audience knows how horrific the content is, and go with the tone of the piece. If such an approach offends, simply consider yourself warned. Furthermore, fans of the original Bad Lieutenant might be turned off by what can be seen as a film which almost satirizes the themes of the original film. Personally, I believe the films to be counterpoints to one another rather than mere oppositions, but again, fans of the original should be warned.

Overall, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is one of the best films released in 2009, brining Nicolas Cage back to his darker roots and providing Herzog with one of his strongest film in his canon of work. In a film season where the likelihood of cinematic junk is high, the film is a worthwhile rental an antidote to the tame and conservative popcorn fare of the coming months.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Gunless (Phillips 2010)

One of the more peculiar elements of America is the prominence which guns have in their society and culture. From the right to bear arms to the continued resistance to gun control legislation, guns just seem to be something of an obsession. Take a look at American cinema: from the action film to the thriller, guns tend to get quite a bit of screen time, and are perhaps mythologized most in the Western genre, where the gun is both the symbol of the wildness of the west while simultaneously acting as the primary tool for the forces of civilization.

It is this gun obsession which William Phillips’ 2010 Canadian Western comedy Gunless attempts to examine, juxtaposing the “code of the west” against the culture of its northern neighbour, aka my home country. The end result of this effort is a rarity for Canadian cinema: a mostly successful populist film which manages to dodge the usual pitfalls of imitating American genre pictures without Hollywood budgets whilst shoehorning in Canadian references where they are not needed. Instead, the highly allegoric film relies on strong comedic performances from its talented cast, lead by Canadian icon Paul Gross and Sienna Guillory, verbal wit rather than endless slapstick, and a dedication to embracing the more serious side of its chosen subject matter.

Gunless’ story is that of the Montana Kid (Gross), an American gunslinger on the run from a group of bounty hunters for having killed seven men on record, each in a fair gunfight. The Kid’s latest escape from his pursuers lands him in a small Canadian town where he quickly challenges a local blacksmith to a gunfight for the “offence” of looking after the Kid’s horse. There is just one problem: there is no working pistol in town. Bent on getting his gunfight, the Kid agrees to a local woman’s (Guillory) proposal: if he helps her build a windmill on her property, she will let him have her long broken pistol to mend. As the time passes and his pursuers ride closer to town, the Kid finds himself increasingly confused by the culture around him as well as being conflicted about his own identity as a gunslinger.

The film’s hypothesis as to why guns and a culture of violence persist in America today is a surprisingly intelligent one, dodging the culture of fear proposed in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and instead pointing towards the guilt and fear of admitting past failings as a society and culture. The Montana Kid is a character weighed down by the acts of violence he has committed, and in order to cope with the guilt has mythologized his entire identity in order to live and function as an individual. In the best scene of the film, the Kid breaks down why it is that he cannot back down from a gunfight and the implications of this speech suggest that admittance to being wrong in his use of violence in any situation would be tantamount to being wrong in all cases. The allegorical implications of this speach are massive with regards to American history, and transforms the film from being a simple deconstruction of mythology into a study of how mythology, particularly national mythology, serves the needs of both individuals and nations.

Where the film falters however is in its mythologizing of Canada at the same time as it deconstructs the myths of the America West. Unlike America, Canada has never had a strong national mythology to draw upon. As such, our tendency has been to rewrite our past with more recent national myths which have been at best dubious. Multiculturalism and peaceful existence are high ideals to have, but the degree to which we as a country have succeeded in upholding such values is questionable, and certainly not ideals we have managed to uphold in the past. Canada's history features no less than two attempted uprisings in the American mould,and the treatment of both aboriginal groups and Japanese immigrants are some of the darker parts of our history. The film instead projects these lesser traits wholly onto the American bounty hunters in the film, thus allowing Canada to get off nearly free of our failings. It doesn’t sink the film, but it is a misstep which needs to be critically examined.

However, I don’t wish to give the impression that the film is a weighty sociological study. Gunless from start to finish is a predictable, lighthearted comedy carried on the backs of its likable cast. Gross is in fine form here, showing that he is a capable leading man when his is willing to forgo the self important and indulgent tendencies often seen in his “auteur” projects, and Guillory manages to make a perfect foil for Gross. However, the biggest surprise in the film is Tyler Mane of X-Men and Halloween remake fame, as the blacksmith at the center of the Kid’s problems. While not award winning work, Mane show far greater skills as a performer than has been seen thus far, proving that he has the ability to take on greater challenges as an actor than merely silent killer number three.

Phillips writing and direction are solid, if unremarkable. At numerous points, Phillips allows the film to be too heavy handed, bringing far too much obvious attention to the presence of guns in the film when a more subtle approach would have worked. However, Phillips keeps a tight control on the production as director, carefully grounding the film in a sense of realism while keeping his actors in check from going overbroad. He isn’t going to be in the big leagues with David Cronenberg anytime soon, but he accomplishes what he sets out to do.

If Gunless suffers from any major problem, it’s that it has been released at the wrong time. I don’t know who planned the release date, but opening the film a week before Iron Man 2 was one of the more idiotic moves I’ve seen in recent cinema, dooming the film to obscurity. If it is playing near you at the moment, I would highly recommend seeing Gunless while you still can. Tony Stark will still be around to give your money over to next weekend. Gunless needs it now.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


New reviews will be posted soon, starting with the Canadian feature film Gunless.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Child's Play (Holland 1988)

(Once again, this move is delaying EVERYTHING. However, GOOD NEWS! I now have employment in my field! That wont start for a while, but while I get prepped for that, and continue to work on this move, I offer another "classic" review from my Facebook/Live Journal period)

I think I have to come up with a new term for talking about Child’s Play (Holland 1988), and the best I can think of is accidental film. An accidental film is a film that is a success despite the fact that various problems during the production process should have resulted in the final product being a complete failure. Child’s Play is an accidental film, one that should require any viewer of the film to watch the special features in order to see how several different sets of intentions formed the finished film.

Let me back up a bit, as my context for viewing Child’s Play is a little odd. I had known that the film was about a child who ends up with a doll possessed by the soul of a killer, a solid B-film idea. However, before going into the film, I had also read an interview with Don Mancini, who originated the idea for the film and wrote the initial drafts, where he offhandedly mentioned that his original concept for the film had the doll being the id of the central child, as opposed to the soul of the killer. Interested on how the original concept could evolve into what was in the finished film, I decided that it might finally be time to check it out, especially with the new DVD that had been recently released.

Furthermore, the film is directed by Tom Holland, who directed a fantastic homage to eras of horror gone by in Fright Night (1985). Holland also wrote the screenplay to Psycho II (Franklin 1983), which is a film that is better than it has any right to be. Holland’s involvement was enough to push me over the edge into checking out Child’s Play.

Ultimately, Child’s Play proves to be is a film that is at war with itself. On one hand, you have a film about a child’s need for friendship, and how toy companies prey upon this need. On the other hand, you have a film about a serial killer who was trained in voodoo and uses it to cheat death in order to get back at those who killed him. Conceivably, there should be a way that these two premises could fit together, but more often than not they seem to be at odds. Furthermore, while the film features some clever writing, directing, and subtlety which is unexpected for a film about a killer doll, the film is also filled with moments of equally bad writing, with more than a few groan inducing lines and some poorly conceived scenes which are directed in such an over the top way as to make the viewer laugh, and not intentionally.

But somehow, the film still seems to work.

Take the opening scenes of the film. It begins with the final moments of killer Charles Lee Ray’s life (Brad Dourif, who also voices Chucky later in the film and in the future instalments), as he is abandoned by his partner, chased into a toy store by Officer Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), and is bleeding to death from a gun shot. Coming across a Good Guy doll, Ray recites a voodoo enchantment which places his soul in a doll. However, the scene in which Ray passes his soul on is executed in an over the top fashion: a storm cloud gathers overhead, and lightning strikes down to complete the process, causing a minor explosion in the process. The whole sequence is a bizarre combination of overdone cop and criminal confrontation clichés with magic spells, setting the viewer up for an entirely different film.

Cut to the introduction of Andy (Alex Vincent). The scene follows Andy as he watches the Good Guys animated television series and makes breakfast, burning toast and causing a general mess as any young kid would. The scene is well constructed, playing with the audience’s lack of knowledge at this point: who is this kid and why is he performing these tasks by himself? Where are the adults? It turns out that Andy is in fact making breakfast-in-bed for his mother, belying the initial impressions of a problematic situation with the seemingly harmless childhood event.

However, the filmmakers complicate the matters through the Good Guys cartoon Andy watches. It is an insidious bit of animation and live action advertisement, in which a one of the Good Guys promises to be the friend of a child on the show before it slips into an advertisement for the Good Guy dolls, which promises similar types of adventure and companionship. The ad is a deft bit of filmmaking, subtly suggesting what Andy really wants in his desire of the doll, and starts what should be the heart of the film: a critique of children’s entertainment and toys which prey upon their insecurities.

Watching these two sequences back to back, it is surprising to see that they seem to belong to the same film, each demonstrating two entirely different sets of sensibilities, both in subject matter and formal approach. Of course, the opening sequence could have worked as a fake out, setting the audience expectations up only to deliver a different film. However the rest of Child’s Play bounces back and forth between these two different stories and approaches before jarringly trying to bring them together in a bizarre third act, which works about as well as one might expect. It is like Frankenstein’s monster: all the pieces are there, but do they really seem to go together? At best, the function well enough.

What is frustrating is that buried in this Frankenstein is a much more cohesive and thematically thought out film, and the DVD confirms as such as Mancini runs through what his original screenplay had been, seemingly a horror film/satire by way of the Paul Verhoeven /Edward Neumeier collaborations. While Mancini enjoys the finished film and praises it and his collaborators, in watching the documentaries on the film one cannot help but get annoyed at producer David Kirschner, who forced the serial killer/voodoo material into the film. Holland, who is more o less absent save archive material from the DVD, seems to have been interested in an entirely different approach himself, looking to make a more emotional film about the broken family. At least these family elements work along with the original intent of the film rather than come out of a different film altogether. With these different directions though, it is harder to give credit to anyone on the film for the elements that surprisingly work.

Case in point: I was ready before watching the special features to praise the filmmakers for allowing the audience to work by themselves to have to put together the details of Andy’s situation and his loneliness. The film never belabours the point of Andy’s loneliness, instead requiring the viewer to pay attention and make the connections. However, the DVD features then reveal that over half an hour was cut out of the film before release, none which is provided on the disc, leaving me to wonder if the filmmakers at one time did have material that made explicit what now remains implicit. In other words, are some of these aspects of the film sheer accidents? I’m not sure. Most certainly, it does not matter in the final product, but it leaves the viewer with the feeling that the whole film was a mess that just managed to work out well enough to leave a lasting impression.

At the end of it all, I am willing to recommend Child’s Play as more an oddity than a great film. It is fun, but when it is over, there is a chance that you will be more interested in the possible remake than this finished film, at least if Mancini returns to his original concept. I know I am.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Quest (Van Damme 1996)

(This move is becoming a REAL pain in the ass, leaving me with no time to review. So, here is ANOTHER "classic" facebook and one time Live Journal review I have been meaning to move over.)

The Quest (Van Damme 1996) would be easy to write off as a miserable film not worth any thought. However, if I did that, I wouldn’t have the challenge of trying to write something on the film now, would I? Thus, I have instead invest six hours (and counting) of my life over two days on this write up, in hopes of coming up with something more worthwhile than the film itself.

If Panic in Year Zero! (Milland 1962) is a testament to Ray Milland’s skills as both an actor and director, overcoming content and budget restrictions to forge a thematically and dramatically rich film, The Quest then is the exact opposite: a testament to Jean Claude Van Damme’s failings as an actor and filmmaker in the face of having the necessary budget and resources at his disposal to create a low aiming B-film for a major studio.

The Quest is another in line of martial arts tournament films that populated the 1980s and 1990s, with Van Damme appear in multiple entries in this genre, including Bloodsport (Arnold 1988) and The Kickboxer (DiSalle and Worth 1989) (Interestingly, the Van Damme staring adaptation of the Street Fighter video games eliminated the tournament storyline. Go figure). The film, set during the mid-1920s, follows Van Damme as Charles Dubois, a lousy pickpocket who looks after street kids in New York. Chased onto a boat of gun smugglers, Dubois is enslaved only to be “rescued” by Lord Dobbs (Roger Moore, whose run of James Bond films is still the worst in that franchise’s history), a former British Naval Officer and now full time pirate.

Again sold by Dobbs into slavery to work as a prize fighter, Dubois meets up again with Dobbs six months later with a proposition: buy his freedom, and they can work together to get to a Lost City in Tibet where an annual martial arts tournament is being held to find the best fighter in the world. Beyond the title, the winner will also receive a massive solid gold dragon statue, and Dubois plans to steal it. With the help of a reporter (Janet Gunn), Dubois and Dobbs manage to con their way into acting as the attendants for an American boxing champion (James Remar) who has been invited to the tournament in order to make their way to the lost city. From thereon out, Dubois will learn the meaning of honour and redeem himself by ultimately fighting in the tournament himself.

While the premise is hardly original, all of hard body action hero Van Damme’s films have been derivative at best. What makes the best of these films work are scripts that show just enough of a twist on their respective premises to be interesting, and the stylish direction of filmmakers such as John Woo on Hard Target (1993) and Roland Emmerich on Universal Solider (1992) who know how to take advantage of Van Damme’s physical skills as a martial artist and shoot well executed gunplay. Picking up the acting slack for Van Damme during scenes where he is not required to beat the hell out of people (or is on screen at all) are casts of solid character actors. Would Hard Target be as much fun without Lance Henriksen chewing up all the scenery in sight? Or would Universal Solider have worked without allowing Jerry Orbach to get a paycheque that didn’t have anything to do with Law and Order?

So why does The Quest fail? At its simplest, it’s that Van Damme the filmmaker has crafted a film that undermines his strengths and showcases all of his failings, where none of Van Damme’s various roles are able to compensate for the failings of the others.

First, the screenplay, which is based on a story co-written by Van Damme, is lazy on a spectacular level, failing to provide understandable motivations and coherent logic for events to take place. While hardly great writing, Hard Target at least made basic sense: we know what motivates the villains, we know why the world and the situations the characters face are the way they are. The Quest is unable to even motivate a reason for what appear to be Tibetan monks to hold the tournament and give a large golden dragon as a prize. This repeats itself frequently over the film: when James Remar’s boxer Maxie Devine declares to the monks that he believes that Dubois is a better fighter capable of representing the United States than him, they declare that if Dubois fails in the first round, Devine will have to stay in the Lost City forever. Why? I have no idea.

Unfortunately, the film is structured in such a way that rather than dispersing the action throughout the film, it is saved mainly for the final third, which would be fine if the film wasn’t required to rest of the shoulders of Van Damme as an actor. Unlike the other noted Van Damme films where the supporting cast manages to, um, support the film until the next moment where Van Damme breaks into battle or, at the very least, find a way to make use of his complete lack of acting ability, here Van Damme is stuck having to try and keep up with Roger Moore for charm or Remar for dedication to material not worth his time, constantly reminding the viewer that Van Damme simply can’t act and wishing that the film would have been about Dobbs instead. (NOTE: having seen JCVD since, I take back the "Van Damme can't act" comment.)

But hey, at least once Van Damme gets to play action hero, the film should pick up, right? Unfortunately, Van Damme the action star is let down by Van Damme the director. While his direction has been mainly inept anyway throughout the entire film, the action scenes are particularly awful, staged with all the skill of a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers episode and filmed with even less skill. Each scene is a repetitive set of punching and kicking with no flair, which factored together with the PG-13 rating crushes any hope for well designed action sequences.

I could keep going on with this, but there is little point. Van Damme comes dangerously close with The Quest to becoming the Jerry Lewis of action films, only salvaging himself from that “honour” by the sheer level of sincerity that seems to be on display, rather than the annoying smugness of Lewis. Unfortunately for Van Damme, that same sincerity is what manages to bring the film into Mystery Science theatre 3000 levels of mockery.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Find Me Guilty (Lumet 2006)

(While the move is being a pain in the butt, here is another classic review till I finish the Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans review)

Find Me Guilty is perhaps the most frustrating type of movie to review simply because of what it is: a professionally made, solidly written, directed and performed film that is completely lacks any distinguishing features to make it memorable. Of course, when you have a director as great as Sidney Lumet who gave us 12 Angry Men, a statement such as the one I made might still be seen as damning. It shouldn’t be, but the film never reaches the highs or lows that make a great director’s work worth discussing. After considering Find Me Guilty from all angles, the conclusion I reach is that there are better Sidney Lumet films, better Vin Diesel films, better court room dramas, better court room comedies, and better mob films that one should seek out first.

The film is based on the true events of the longest criminal trial in US history as an entire New Jersey mob family is arrested and to be put on trial all at once. One of these mobsters is Jackie DiNorscio (Diesel) an aging man already convicted for a drug charge in a separate case. DiNorscio is approached by DA Sean Kierney (Linus Roache, aka Bruce Wayne’s dad), who will get DiNorscio’s prison sentence reduced if he testifies against his associates. Instead, DiNorscio refuses and chooses to defend himself in court, with occasional advice from lead defence attorney Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage). What results is a slightly absurd trial as DiNorscio’s generally loveable personality becomes the center of focus, much to the frustration of the prosecution.

The film is not so much about the court case itself, but rather an examination of DiNorscio’s unfailing sense of loyalty to his mob family and his inability to differentiate between personal ties and business ties, even when such loyalty seems misplaced. When the film opens, Jackie is nearly killed when his cousin shoots him several times: Jackie believes his cousin still loves him deep down and is simply in need of help for a drug problem, hence his refusal to turn him over to the police. Jackie, as played by Diesel, is not innocent of the crimes accused but does have an innocent view of the world. He does not seem to understand why people could possibly dislike him or doubt that he loves them. Kierney is the exact opposite of Jackie, a man who is legally innocent and right but is so personally arrogant and dislikeable that the viewer almost entirely sides with Jackie despite of the evidence.

This binary opposition of the characters is part of the problem with the film though. In one of the film’s best scenes, Kierney lets loose his frustration about the jury finding Jackie likeable and its impact upon their society, noting that after all, these men are murders and thieves. However, the viewer is never really left in conflict. Jackie is such a nice guy that we never really are left to see the other side of his life. In fact, the crimes Jackie has been involved with are pretty much swept away from the view of the viewer. Meanwhile, Kierney's horrible personality is in full display, ending any chance of conflicting ambiguity.

The end result of all of this is that there is no drama. While the film is interesting, it never becomes involving, leaving the film as little more than a collection of moments, of interesting scenes that really don’t add up to a whole lot. This is shocking given that, as noted, Lumet made perhaps the most intense court based films ever made in 12 Angry Men. Whereas each member of the jury in that film had distinct personalities and viewpoints,in Find Me Guilty, the supporting cast has nothing to work with. Dinklage and Ron Silver have very little to do, and the entire mass of the mob is nothing more than a series of Italian mafia stereotypes.

Worse, the film has a made for cable feel about it, from adequate but not great production design to shoddy makeup. The film is supposed to be set in the 1980s, but nothing in the film ever manages to feel evocative of the era. And while Diesel does his best as an actor here, the makeup he is given does not look natural, never allowing the viewer to believe in the supposed age of his character. The film would have been better served by casting an older actor in the role, and given the likeable but not overly bright approach taken to Jackie in the film, one could easily have seen Sylvester Stallone in the role. Yes, I am being serious.

I could say more about Find Me Guilty, but there really is not that much left. The film is a minor work for all involved, and is fine if there is nothing else to watch. But with all the possible choices one has, that will leave this film near the bottom of the pile