Saturday, March 27, 2010

Guyver: Dark Hero (Wang 1994)

When we last left off with the wannabe film franchise Guyver, I spent an entire review pointing out just how poorly directed the first Guyver film was, being little more than a mashing together of various genres and stories without any structure or purpose other than to show off decent, but not great, monster effects. Now we arrive at Guyver: Dark Hero, a low budget 1994 straight to video sequel directed by one half of the team behind the first effort, Steve Wang. Guyver: Dark Hero by all rights should be as big a disaster as the first film. Oddly enough however, Guyver: Dark Hero does manage to improve on the first film substantially, though whether that is enough to make it worth viewing is another matter.

The major change this time out is that there is an actual story being told: Sean (David Hayter, the credited writer on the first X-Men [Singer 2000] film and perhaps best known as the voice of Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid games) is living a fairly torturous life since being bonded with the Guyver Unit. While Sean uses the Guyver to fight crime, the Guyver is increasingly pushing Sean to kill, a point which has finally brought an end to his relationship with Mizky. In need of answers as to what the Guyver’s intended purpose is, Sean searches for the answers at an archaeological dig where the remains of Zoanoids have been found. Sean is not the only one who has a vested interest in the dig however, as government officials and new members of the Kronos Corporation also arrive to cause havoc. What answers and dangers await Sean? And can he come to terms with being the Guyver?

As the story synopsis reveals, Guyver: Dark Hero is heavily invested in exploring its science fiction/superhero mythology, and the end result is better for it, providing a narrative focus that the first film was lacking. This time out, Sean has a legitimate reason to be the protagonist of the film, and is given a defined, if rudimentary, sense of character. This isn’t exactly a saving grace for the film, but it is nice to see that the filmmakers were considerate enough to actually try and give the viewer a reason to invest in the mythology and characters of the Guyver universe, as cliché and absurd as they may be. Guyver: Dark Hero can hardly be considered a great piece of science fiction filmmaking by any stretch, but at least the effort to improve on past failings and take the material seriously can be appreciated.

The catch however is that in improving upon the absolute misfire that was the first film, Guyver: Dark Hero ends up being less entertaining as a result. If Guyver was a train wreck one could not look away from, Guyver: Dark Hero is a slow train that uneventfully moves from start to finish, hitting no extreme lows, but never hitting any highs either. Guyver: Dark Hero simply is what it is: a quickly made cash in which hopefully allowed the cast and crew to keep paying off the mortgage till the next job.

Returning director Steve Wang’s work is competent here, making the best of what little resources he has. Wang still seems less than comfortable with directing scenes that do not feature his creature effects however, staging and shooting everything in a fairly stiff and perfunctory manner. Wang does manage though to keep a better grip on his actors and establish a fairly stable tone throughout the film, leaving one to wonder if the problems with the first film were due in large part to the presence of co-director Screaming Mad George. Still, Wang manages to slip up in a few areas, such as shooting large portions of the film during the day, which work against both the atmosphere Wang attempts to create, as well as his own creature effects, which come across as comical as they flail about in the forests in the middle of the afternoon.

Holding the film together for the most part is star David Hayter, who easily manages to surpass his predecessor Jack Armstrong in the role of Sean, though Hayter does have the advantage or having slightly better writing to work with. It is hardly groundbreaking work on the part of Hayter, but he does manage to bring enough charisma and appropriately melodramatic energy to the role to keep things lively. The rest of the cast does serviceably, trying their hardest to make something of the stock types they have been given to play.

Beyond this however, there really isn’t that much to say about Guyver: Dark Hero. It lacks anything in the way of political or social reflection, is devoid of subtext, and has no real distinguishing marks about it. It is a film made to fill production quota, and if that is all you are looking for, well, Guyver: Dark Hero isn’t that bad of a choice.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Guyver: Dark Hero Review tomorrow Night

Picked up an extra couple of shifts, so the final edit of Guyver Dark Hero will be finished tomorrow and posted.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ponyo (Ponyo On the Cliff) (Miyazaki 2008)

It is easy to get caught up in the surface beauty of Hayao Miyazaki’s 2008 animated film Ponyo, with its beautiful design and fluid animation. Furthermore, with its child protagonists, light hearted fantasy narrative and somewhat cutesy humour, it would be easy to dismiss the film as little more than a colourful distraction, without any weight or substance to it. Such an interpretation would miss the brilliant subversion of the film, turning children’s fantasy films on their heads, with the end resulting being a film that isn’t so much an adventure story as it is a study in human behaviour.

The story of Ponyo, inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fairytale The Little Mermaid, is that of Ponyo, a young fish whose father Fujimoto, a wizard of the sea. Ponyo wishes to become human after meeting a five year old boy named Sosuke, a young boy living with his mother on a cliff. When Ponyo’s father discovers that she is starting to become human after accidentally tasting human blood, he does his best to prevent her from changing. However, Ponyo escapes and absorbs much of her father’s magic potions, allowing her to become human, but unknowingly start altering reality in dangerous ways at the same time. Can everything be put right with the world, and if so, by whom?

Magic, a world in danger, conflict between parents and children, and someone who desires to be human: sounds like a typical children’s film, right? While the basic elements that make up the story of the film may be standard, Miyazaki utilizes the surface familiarity of the narrative to play with the expectations of the audience. Unlike similar narratives, this is not a children’s coming of age story, with our protagonists learning about the adult world and finding their place in the world: the child characters already know and understand world and their place in it. Rather, Ponyo is a film which invites the viewer to adopt the point of view of a child, and watch as the adults in the story play catch up with the children. The parents of this story spend the film being both amazed and panicked at what their children know and desire, and must confront these feelings for both their own benefit and that of their children.

The end of the world storyline isn’t the dramatic thrust of the film, but rather a metaphor for the feelings of Fujimoto. Fujimoto spends nearly the entire film in a panic, regardless of how small an issue may be, so when it comes time for the dramatic reveal of the world supposedly descending into chaos, it comes off as comical rather than serious: everything when it concerns his daughter feels like the end of the world. This panicked behaviour on the part of Fujimoto is contrasted to the behavior of the other adults in the film, who almost entirely react to events in a positive light, no matter how serious or bizarre they may be: fish becoming girls? Random tsunamis? All of these things are part of life, and it is simply best to just get on with living and not worry about them, particularly if it comes to one’s kids.

The film however is not structured around Fujimoto, but around his daughter Ponyo. The expectation would be that the film would follow her attempts to become human and learning from Sosuke. Once again however, Miyazaki avoids the obvious by not making this the focus of the narrative either. Ponyo does not need to learn to be human: she already is human, in spirit, mind and behaviour. While her reactions to even the smallest of everyday activities and items may seem odd, they are no different than the way most five year olds react to the world, with energy and excitement at the discovery of new things. She doesn’t need to learn anything, nor does Sosuke need to learn to accept her for what she is: he does so from the moment he meets her. What they lack is not moral or spiritual knowledge, but merely technical knowledge of the world, none of which fazes them as they acquire it. The film thus becomes about perception and knowledge, and the bridging of the gaps between different groups when it comes to these issues.

The end result of Miyzaki’s approach to the subject matter is a surprising mature film which avoids the simplistic good vs. evil narratives of most family films, substituted instead with careful observations about human behaviour and relationships. It is touching, sweet, and memorable film, something most often lacking in modern family films made in the west.

Ponyo as a film is virtually flawless, technically impressive and well written. However, if there is one complaint to be found, it is not with the Japanese language version of the film, but with the Disney lead dubbing of the film. Now, putting aside my own hatred for dubbing for a moment, I can accept that the target audience of the film likely cannot read yet, making subtitles a problem. However, celebrity voice casting for the hell of it is/was/always shall be a bad idea, and the English dub of Ponyo is a prime example as to why. Most of the time, celebrity voice casting is a distracting practice, taking the viewer out of the film as they try and guess who is voicing each character. Worse, a number of the adult actors are bad or simply miscast. Liam Neeson, a brilliant actor, is completely wrong for the role of Fujimoto, being too controlled and too regal for a character that was better suited to a more energetic actor, such as David Tennant. Then there is Tina Fey, who spends the entire film sounding as if she is reading off of the script. I know she literally was, but her performance here is static and sounds like a narrated story book recording. Fey is a great actress, but honestly, a selection of professional voice actors would have served the film better.

Still, such a complaint is a small one when it comes to an otherwise masterful film. Ponyo is simply a joyous film, one which is hard to come away from without feeling like taking a fresh look at the world around you, being cute and sentimental without sacrificing intelligence.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Now that the laptop issue is out to be solved, here is how the rest of the week will pan out:

-Ponyo tomorrow.
-Guyver: Dark Hero on Friday

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Don't Buy a Laptop. EVER.

Let me take you back nearly two years ago. After faithful service from my computer of six years, it was time for a new one after that many years of hard use. I had one last year to go to complete my third university degree, and I wasn't going to risk have my computer die on me midway through working on assignments.

Thus, I bought a laptop computer, which fit my needs perfectly: part of my program was working in the field, and having a laptop with my allowed me to travel and take my work with me at every placement. It served me well throughout that final degree.

Now, September 2009, my laptop, only one year only, dies on me, refusing to even start. Still under warranty at the big box store I bought it from, I bring it back to them and they send it away to be fixed. No big issue. It comes back, and I am told the fan wasn't working properly, causing it to over heat. They have repaired it, and tell me a list of things to prevent this in the future, which I follow, to the letter.

Two months later, it dies again. I take it back, and it is sent out again. This time, it is the motherboard that failed, which they fix. Fine by me.

Now, we are in January of 2010, and suddenly, the laptop dies, AGAIN. I take it back, they send it out. It comes back, and the motherboard is the reason for the machine not starting again. They tell me they have replaced the motherboard this time, and that the problem should not reoccur again. Fine.

Now, this past Friday night, I return home after being out for a while, and get on my laptop. Mid-conversation on Skype, the machine dies. AGAIN. Now I am ticked.

While I couldn't take it in person due to work commitments, my parents run it over for me, and a little detail comes up. It seems the motherboard was NOT replaced last time, despite being told so: it was only repaired. This time, they promise they will fix this for sure.

Yeah, right.

At any rate, I have learned my lesson to never buy from this store again. But more importantly, I will never buy a laptop again. For all its benefits, it has proven to be a massive pain in the butt, and I have no intention of suffering through this much crap ever again. It will be a desktop computer from now on.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Guyver (George and Wang 1991)

My fellow film fans, we need to be honest for one second. Once we get outside our exclusive and knowledgeable circle, there are some things about the basics of film that the average person does not know, or is only vaguely familiar with. For example, many people will know and understand what writers and actors do, but editors and producers? Not a chance, unless someone goes out of their way to explain and educate them. Even the best of us will have a hard time determining just what the difference is between an “Executive Producer” and a regular old “Producer” credit on a given film.

Then there is directing, which exists in some bizarre state where the general public sort of knows what the job entails, or at least knows that a director gets to yell “action” and “cut.” Even if a non-film geek understands the general idea that the director more or less guides the film from being a script to a finished work, bringing to the film some ethereal “vision” to guide whole project, it is still a fairly vague notion that is hard to properly explain unless the person has some working knowledge of filmmaking, particularly when one starts getting into concepts such as auteur theory. Poorly explained, the job of a director can come off as being nothing more than a project manager, rather than a creative individual.

It is for reasons such as this that I am happy that bad films exist, for they may be the greatest teaching tool for explaining film making. Film goers are used to basic competence at the very least when going to the cinema, so the absence of such competence can clarify the nature of jobs such as directing by showing what a film can be without a guiding hand. For this reason, the 1991 sci-fi/superhero/martial arts/monster disaster Guyver is a God send, giving those wishing to teach film basics the perfect tool for explaining what a director is, and what at least a decent one needs to bring to a film.

Guyver, based on a manga of the same name which I have never read, tells the tale of one Sean Barker (Jack Armstrong), a young man who, in a fit of concern for a woman he cares about, follows her to the scene of a crime where her father was murdered, and stumbles upon something called the Guyver Unit. The Guyver is a bio-armour which seems to enhance the abilities of the user and grant other powers, left on Earth by a group of mysterious aliens from the dawn of man. It seems these aliens made man to function as a weapon of some sort, and have given mankind a gene which, when activated, allows a person to switch between their human form and that of a freakish monster. The Kronos Corporation, which knows about our species secret history, is attempting to forge an army of these monsters, and recover the Guyver, in an attempt to take over the world. Once Sean is accidentally bound with the armour, it is up to him, and a tough CIA agent named Max Reed (Mark Hamill) to save the day.

Now, I hate to place films into easily definable categories, be it genre, target audience, etc., as a large number of my favourite films tend to bend and break such easy categorization. However, when films proceed to play with such categories, in order to succeed, such films need to have a clear sense of internal direction and focus in order to work: they need a clear identity, which is what a director is supposed to provide. Shaun of the Dead, for example, deftly blends horror, dark comedy and the romantic film genres together, working together simultaneously yet never clashing, unless the filmmakers wish these elements to do so.

Guyver however is a film that lacks any sense of identity at all, veering between being a kid friendly Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rip off, a science fiction horror film ala Re-Animator (whose cast is cannibalized here), and a martial arts superhero film. Every scene in the film exists in their own little world, forcibly being joined together by a recurring and jarring transition edit that would have been out of place on the old Adam West Batman series. Gore and violence give away to rapping monsters, and vice versa, with the filmmakers succeeding only in creating bewilderment on the part of the viewer, and not in a good way.

The main cause of such inconsistency is that the filmmakers seem to have no idea just what the story they are supposed to be telling is, or more accurately, whose story is being told. My early description of the film’s narrative is deceptive, as it offers a more cohesive view of the film’s story than actually exists in the finished film. The film is divided between three different characters: the already noted Sean and Max Reed, as well as Mizky (Vivian Wu), Sean’s sort of love interest and daughter of the scientist murdered at the start of the film. While the set up of the film naturally lends itself to Max and Mizky being the protagonists, the filmmakers do their best to make Sean into our lead. The problem is that Sean has the least reason to be in the film: he has no character, no history, or at least nothing that the filmmakers are willing to share. As such, he has no actual point to existing at all, other than to be a typical young male hero. Since Sean has no direction to move in, the rest of the film has no direction to move in either, and thus the film becomes a mess of scenes without structure.

Such a problem should never have existed, and first time directors Screaming Mad George and Steve Wang should have attempted to address this in some manner before filming began. Unfortunately, their focus seems to be on one thing and one thing only: their creature effects. Having both designed and built the creatures of the film, George and Wang spend most of the running time focusing on extended sequences of their creations in action, ignoring the fact that the actors are all over the map and that no time and effort seems to have been spent on the set design and editing. I don’t think I have seen such a visually bland production in quite some time, and one has to wonder why George and Wang were not removed as the dailies came in. Perhaps I am being too harsh on the directing duo, but given that the version I viewed of the film is billed as a “Director’s Cut,” their role in the film comes to the front and center.

If Guyver does have a saving grace, it is that the film is so awful that it is often hilarious, from Mark Hamill’s attempt to be bad ass, to the hilarious facial gestures of Jack Armstrong during is out of suit fight scenes. Were the series still in production, I can almost guarantee that Guyver would have been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Instead, audiences will have to settle with creating their own commentary track for the film.

However, such faint praise hardly makes Guyver worth a recommendation, and has only managed to amount to yet another painful review experience in a month full of them, as I try and find something worth saying about the films thus far. Thankfully, I have much higher hopes for our next film, Ponyo.

Oh for the love of...

Agh! Again, thanks to real life issues, this review will not be up till tonight.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


The Guyver review will be posted up tomorrow morning instead of tonight, due to various factors. Sorry.

UPDATE: Guyver, Ponyo and More


First up: the Guyver review will be up late tonight/early tomorrow. Just undergoing editing.

Second, the review of Ponyo will be up by Friday.

Early next week should bring reviews of Guyver: Dark Hero and Bug.

See you later!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Surveillance (Lynch 2008)

Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s 2008 film Surveillance is a rather slippery little film. It really isn’t a mystery, yet it is structured like one; it is a narrative film, yet the narrative is almost entirely irrelevant; it is a film that is all about observation, yet ironically it is a film which works against the audience needing to be observant. Surveillance is a paradox, one which is as frustrating as it is rewarding.

Surveillance tells the tale of two FBI agents (Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) who arrive at a police station in the middle of nowhere. Three individuals have just survived a run in with two serial killers being hunted by the FBI, where their family, friends and partners have been slaughtered. One survivor is a police officer (Kent Harper), another is a drug addicted young woman (Pell James) , and a little girl (Ryan Simpkins). Each one tells their side of the story, under video surveillance. Yet, what is really being observed as these tales are told?

As noted earlier, Surveillance is a film which is structured like a mystery, complete with a “twist” reveal in the latter third of the film. However, the mystery itself is almost entirely solvable from the time the film begins. While normally this would be the sign of bad screenwriting and directing, I don’t believe that this is the case here. Lynch has crafted a world in the film which is deliberately cartoonish, populated with characters who lack any psychological depth, and who run entirely upon impulse, revelling in their excesses. This approach works entirely counter to the very concept of mystery, which is rooted in the hidden and obscure. This contrast between genre and style is the crux of the film’s overall critique: the loss of depth and complexity in a mediated world. This is a world of wannabe liars and con artists, incapable of effectively hiding who they are, because they do not need to. Everyone is too wrapped up in their own immediate gratification to be observant of anything, or anyone, around themselves. As such, the idea of a mystery has lost all meaning.

Given this subject matter, the tone of Surveillance is appropriately ironic and darkly comedic, making it no surprise that the performances from the cast are appropriately humorous and unsettling. In fact, the cast of the film is one of the stranger ensembles I have seen in a film, with more dramatic actors, such as Pullman, Ormond and the always great Michael Ironside mixing it up with known comic actors French Stewart and Cheri Oteri among others. While I wouldn’t call the performances from the cast here as being the best any of them have done (well, maybe Oteri), Lynch does manage to keep them all on the same page, walking the fine line between comedic and horrific.

However, despite the film’s complexities and engrossing intellectual challenge, I am honestly not sure how well the finished work stands as a cinematic experience. The catch of the approach Lynch takes to her film is that it works against the film as much as it does for it. In structuring it as a mystery, Lynch forces the viewer to have to sit through the motions of a mystery that there is no real investment in. Due to this, the film runs longer than it really needs to. I can help but think that Surveillance would have worked better as a short film rather than a feature, where its approach would have carried more punch and not dragged as much as it does.

In fact, I am not entirely sure Lynch knew how to conclude the film either. After awhile, the film feels like it is searching for the proper point for which to end, never really finding it. It simply runs out of material rather than finding the right material, and becomes intent on wrapping up as many loose ends as possible, even though such efforts are unnecessary.

Still, Surveillance is worth seeking out. It is a flawed film, but a fascinating one as well, skilfully playing with our perceptions of the mystery genre and with our understanding of media. While it might leave those expecting a traditional mystery thriller cold, for those willing to make the effort to grapple with its complexities, there are many rewards to be found.

Review to be posted LATE Tonight/Early Tomorrow

As the title says.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (Burton 2010)

Let’s go back to 1992, and examine a little film known as Batman Returns from director Tim Burton. A sequel to 1989’s Batman, also by Burton, Batman Returns is a bit of a departure for fans of the first film, as it transforms Batman’s world into more of a fairytale as opposed to the fantastic noir hell of the first film: characters are resurrected by cats without any explanation; the settings or more fantastical and elaborate; the character’s more symbolic and stylized than before; etc. However, the film never goes far enough with this fairytale concept, as the film is still partly rooted in realism, with story lines involving backdoor politics and corporate maneuvering, which calls for more cohesive logic than a fairytale does. Hence, elements such as rocket launching penguins, which would work in fairytale logic, seem out of place and illogical as the two sides of the film battle it out.

Why do I bring up Batman Returns in a review for Alice in Wonderland, Burton’s newest film? In an odd way, the problem that Batman Returns suffers from also plagues Alice in Wonderland, only in reverse. Despite the source material offering Burton a chance to truly follow his imagination to its full, unfettered heart’s content, he has instead crafted a narrative that is oddly conservative, brining a level of logic and coherence to a universe that itself was designed to counter, or at least question, the logic of everyday reality.

The story of Alice in Wonderland is not that of the classic tales, but is rather something of a sequel. Alice (Mia Wasikowska), now nineteen, discovers that the party she has been dragged to by her mother is an engagement party, with Alice herself being asked to marry the son of a wealthy lord. At the moment of decision, Alice flees, following the infamous White Rabbit down a rabbit hole, leading her to Wonderland, a place she has forgotten. However, Wonderland itself is now ruled by the Red Queen (Helen Bonham Carter), having used the Jabberwocky as a means of taking control from her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Alice is prophesized to slay the Jabberwocky, an idea which she resists, but when many of her friends, including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) are captured, Alice begins a mission to rescue them, one which will force her to face the prophecy head on.

It’s no secret that Burton’s best characters, and the ones he always seems most interested in, are those that are outsiders to everyday society, each of these characters being visual and ideological contrasts to accepted societal norms. It is no mistake that Burton’s worst film, Planet of the Apes, forced him to work with an average, archetypal leading man and focus on the human characters: Burton is clearly far more interested in the apes and their world.

Thankfully since Planet of the Apes, Burton has avoided this issue and stuck with his outsider characters, including this version of Alice in Wonderland. Alice here is a woman conflicted by the path before her, with either the option of following tradition and society’s expectations by giving into the idea of marriage, or carving out her own path. Given to flights of fancy and distraction, Alice is a true Burton heroine, shy and awkward, but with big dreams which put her in conflict with the world around her. Alice thus becomes the film's main strength.

The problem with the film lies with Wonderland itself and the conflict Alice becomes wrapped up in upon returning to the fantastic world. By making the battle in Wonderland one over the rightful ruler of the land and having its citizens choose sides, Wonderland is politicized, thus reducing the contrast between the fantastical world that works against logic, and the world of rules from which Alice comes. It brings a level of organization to Wonderland which ultimately absorbs the supposed fringe characters into the mainstream: they are given official sanction to be crazed and peculiar by the White Queen, thus diluting their subversive edge.

This is made all the worse by the biggest casting mistaking in a Burton film since Mark Wahlberg in Planet of the Apes: Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. Try as Burton might, he is unable to make Hathaway into a Burton character. Hathaway is too much of a mainstream Disney Princess to be an outsider. The battle for her to be restored to rightful leadership hence comes off as a battle for restoring the safe Disney brand more than anything else, and her performance only adds to this concept, appearing to put up with her subjects rather than actually like them. She is open to accepting certain levels of eccentricity, but no more than that. The White Queen, to work in this narrative at all, needed to be someone more subversive and not already beloved little children. Someone a little edgier like Winona Ryder would have worked better in the role.

However, to really understand how tame Alice in Wonderland has become, one needs look no further than Depp’s Mad Hatter. Now, Depp is in fine form as usual, and his visual look is amazing. However, the Hatter here isn’t really all that mad. He is far too aware of what is going on around him, too dedicated to a cause to be mad. He is transformed into a sympathetic clown, rather than a dangerous threat to law and order, bouncing between great anger and great sorrow. The Hatter should be more along the lines of Hunter S. Thompson, but instead we are given a sanitized figure that parents can feel comfortable with.

Flaws aside, Alice in Wonderland truly shines in its visual design. This is a Tim Burton world through and through, exaggerated and bordering on creepy in at least a few areas. It is a richly layered world, filled to the brim with little details and working well outside the special effects limits of previous live action adaptations. While it is still early in the year, I would honestly be surprised if the film is passed over for production design awards at next year’s Academy Awards. Only the Jabberwocky disappoints, coming off as a rejected Godzilla monster design, but that is but a small issue in an otherwise gorgeous film.

Still, I would be lying if I didn’t say I was slightly disappointed in the Alice in Wonderland. It isn’t terrible at any rate, but after the greatness of Burton’s last few efforts, it comes off as a lesser work. With any luck, the more dangerous Burton will come out to play next time, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Alice in Wonderland up Tomorrow

Hey everyone!

Yesterday, I had the chance to see Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, and the review of the film will be up tomorrow.

However, the review that was originally to be posted tomorrow has been pushed to later in the week, becuase it is giving me endless trouble as I try and put my thoughts on it into words. The film in question? Surveillance, Jennifer Chambers Lynch's 2008 film.

Back tomorrow folks.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Film Geek Flashback: Saturday Night at the Movies

If you are a Canadian from Ontario, then chances are you have seen “Saturday Night at the Movies,” a program which airs on the provincial owned and operated channel TVO (Television Ontario). Furthermore, if you are/were a film geek with limited access to classic films, “Saturday Night at the Movies” is/was an absolute Godsend, ever since its debut 36 years ago.

The format of the program is simple: every Saturday, two films are aired which are connected in some manner, be it by director, stars, genre, content, etc. In between the films are segments which interview various filmmakers, stars, and critics, exploring film related topics in a meaningful and detailed manner. Most often, the films shown are of noted historical significance or lesser known titles, presented commercial free and (most often) uncensored.

While its place on television might be more questionable in the era of digital television, special edition DVDs/Blu-Rays and digital downloading, I cannot stress just how important “Saturday Night at the Movies” was for me growing up. As I noted in the first Film Geek Flashback, I grew up in a small town, where access to classic and foreign films was limited at the time, as were books and other informational pieces on filmmaking. As such, “Saturday Night at the Movies” was my gateway to seeing the works of Frank Capra, Orson Welles, Ray Harryhausen and Stanley Kramer among others, and to learning about the importance and relevance of these people and their films.

However, what really made the program memorable in the olden days weren’t the films or the interviews, as great as they often were. No, what truly made “Saturday Night at the Movies” was the host: Elwy Yost, a man so identified with the show that people often referred to the program by his name rather than by its title. Yost wasn’t some slick television presenter of the likes we see these days, who are more interested in trying to look clever, young and hip than discussing film. No, Yost was (and is) a full blown, card carrying film geek of many years.

And damn, he was proud of it.

Gentle and reassuring, Yost was one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever seen discussing film, wanting to share his love of cinema with anyone who would listen. He wanted YOU to be part of the cinema geek club, to take in the films and have them be part of your life as much as they seemed to be part of his. One of the famous stories told about Yost which illustrates this point was that he once took his son out of school to take him to a screening of Citizen Kane. True story or not, that was the kind of love that radiated off the man towards cinema every week, and what made the show so special for its fans.

I will never forget when I was a kid in the late 1990s and Yost held what I believe was a day long marathon run of films one Saturday. I was supposed to be doing homework, but my eyes were glued to the screen as Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad aired early in the afternoon, along with the eyes of my younger brother. It was a joy to watch, and was made all the more so because Yost was there, beaming like a kid in his introduction of the film. The man looked like a respectable adult, but secretly, he was one of us kids. At least, it felt like that, and I am sure that I was not alone when he was on the air.

Of course, all good things must come to an end, and Yost retired in 1999. While “Saturday Night at the Movies” continues to this day, it is notable that its attempts at replacing Yost with a new host were short lived. Unlike long running institutions like “The Tonight Show” or “Saturday Night Live” which are able to reinvent themselves around new personalities, “Saturday Night at the Movies” is a show that has a very specific need of its host. The host needs to let the subject matter be bigger than anything else, yet not fade into the background at the same time. Not many people are able to pull this off, so it is no surprise that the idea of a host was dropped altogether.

These days, “Saturday Night at the Movies” is connected to the film department at York University in Toronto, and is in the hands of individuals who labour with love behind the scenes of the show to continue the work Yost did for 25 years. Still, the show does not quite fill the same need as it had in the past, with classic films more readily accessible thanks to digital media. Film websites and forums are a dime a dozen these days, leaving fans plenty of places to participate in meaningful conversation (as well as plenty of places to engage in meaningless conversations. I am looking at you Ain’t it Cool News). And of course, Turner Classic Movies has cornered the market on film history, often showing better quality prints of films, commercial free, almost all day long. Yet, when looking back, there will always be a place in my heart for “Saturday Night at the Movies,” and perhaps for some young film geek out there, it is filling the same need that I myself once had.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Update: New Film Geek Flashback very, VERY Early Sunday

Hey everyone! The Film Geek Flashback will be up very early on Sunday (after midnight tonight), so look for it then!

Also, two 2008 films will be reviewed this week, so be on the lookout!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cop Out (Smith 2010)

Cop Out: it is a tribute to the buddy cop films of the 1980s.

That is about it.

Ok, Cop Out is a decent tribute to the buddy cop films of the 1980s that manages to amuse, but not much more than that. Director Kevin Smith, working for the first time on a script that he himself did not write, claimed that the reason he did the film was because it was one that his father would have loved. While that might be the case, I cannot help but feel that another reason Smith did the film was because he simply needs an outright hit, something which he has never quite managed to achieve thus far in his career. Given how conventional and safe everything is in Cop Out compared to Smith’s usual work, I can only imagine that it must have seemed like a possible contender to be box office smash, as it lacks the wit, warmth and daring of Smith’s best, but financially underperforming, work.

Cop Out follows the story of Jimmy Monroe (Bruce Willis), a cop who’s daughter is about to get married. With the wedding costing $48 000, Jimmy decides to sell a rare baseball card to pay for the whole thing. However, when attempting to sell the card, it is stolen in a hold up, leaving Jimmy and his partner Paul (Tracy Morgan), who is preoccupied with the possibility of his wife cheating on him, to try and recover it.

Cop Out is a work that is so indistinctive that the only thing that really manages to be of any interest is Smith’s involvement in the film. Outside of a few Star Wars references and the appearance in Jason Lee in a cameo, good luck finding anything to mark this as a Smith film. At his best, Smith has always been the most personal of filmmakers, wearing his feelings and ideas of his sleeves on just about any topic he wishes to talk about, from religion (Dogma) to geek culture (Clerks; Clerks II) and even fatherhood (Jersey Girl). Cop Out however is a film that is shocking in just how impersonal it is. Even in the fairly critically slaughtered Jersey Girl, you could feel Smith’s personality shine through, blending toned down crudeness with sweetness in his attempt to pay tribute to his father. Cop Out is just plain crude and not even inventive in its methods of crudeness, seeking no emotional investment on the part of the viewer, nor offering a unique take on the genre. It is pure imitation of better films.

My main question with regards to the film is this: why were Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis put together in this film? They are actors who work best when taking center stage by themselves, with well defined, bigger than life personalities. Morgan and Willis are not bad together, but they hardly have much in the way of chemistry. Bruce does his thing, and then Tracy does his. Their best moments are actually when they are apart or with other characters, and when a buddy film is at its best when the buddies are apart, then there is a serious issue here. In fact, arguably, the film would have been more interesting if it had followed the rivals of Jimmy and Paul, Hunsaker and Barry played by Kevin Pollack and Adam Brody. That pair are just so bizarre in their behaviour and relationship; it would have been fun to spend time inside their odd little world.

Actually, there is no point about talking about the buddies of the film because there is no reason why this needed to be a buddy film in the first place. The story is supposedly about Jimmy trying to pay for his daughter’s wedding, losing the baseball card that would do just that, and then trying to recover it. What role does Paul serve in all this? Well, nothing: he has his own story that is in no way connected, either plot wise or thematically, to Jimmy’s story. Meshing the two together just creates a narrative mess that goes nowhere. The wedding story is lost and seemingly forgotten until the end of the film, and at no point is the Paul subplot about his wife’s possible infidelity treated with any actual weight. The events simply happen, with no actual meaning or impact upon the characters. Cut down to one story, the film at least might have been focused.

I could go on Cop Out, but there is very little point. If you attend, you will be amused, but not much else. It is simply a film that exists as product, tying over the cast and crew until better film projects come along.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Update: March 1st 2010!

Hey Everyone!

Quick update: I will have a review of Cop Out, Kevin Smith's latest, up in the next few days. As for the "Film Geek Flashback," I have decided to start from scratch with that one, as the version I turned out was not up to what I hoped it would be.

Anyways, see you soon!