Sunday, December 4, 2016
Though it still did decently at the box office, what it did largely was confuse and infuriate a fair share of its audience. Tom Cruise was already losing people with his continual decent into Scientology. His involvement in the frustrating final movie from Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut, and the overexposure of his failing relationship with Nicole Kidman were doing more than a little to wear out the welcome of what was, at the time, the highest paid actor in Hollywood.
Against this background, and against a string of mediocre films, did this come out. And, once again, it was a remake of a foreign film directed by Cameron Crowe, who was more known for romantic comedies like Say Anything and Jerry Maguire. Truth is, it isn't all that bad, nor confusing, when viewed these days, even if many of the concepts are rather silly.
David Aames (Cruise) is a playboy publisher who seems to have everything going for him. At a party, his best friend Brian (Jason Lee) introduces him to a woman he recently met named Sofia (Penelope Cruz). David and Sofia quickly hit it off, leaving Brian frustrated and disappointed, though not surprised. The one who is most upset, though, is model Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), who has been hooking up with David for awhile and has come to love him.
David spends the night at Sofia's, but the two do not sleep together. Aames likes to delay his satisfaction, stringing along women until they give into him on their own, and he begins the same process with Sofia, only he begins to develop feelings for her from the beginning. The next day he is confronted by Julie, and he agrees to discuss things with her on a car drive. Problem is, her idea of discussing things is to commit suicide and take him with her.
Aames survives, spending months in a coma and coming out disfigured and bitter. He is able to regain the ability to walk, but becomes more and more isolated as he believes everyone, including the board of the company he inherited from his father, are against him. One night he goes to a club with Sofia and Brian, but makes an ass out of himself, believing that Brian and Sofia have become a couple and that the woman he loves his gone. He falls asleep on the sidewalk, only to be woke up the next morning by Sofia, finding that she does indeed love him.
In addition, the doctors provide some good news: a new procedure will allow them to restore his face to the way it was. For once in a happy relationship, and his grip firmly back on his company, life seems to be going well until it appears that Julie may have survived the car crash and is now stalking him. In addition, he finds himself incarcerated for Sofia's murder, which he insists he did not do. His court-appointed psychiatrist, McCabe (Kurt Russell), slowly begins to believe Aames that his incarceration, as well as the murder, may be a fame job instituted by his company's board in order to remove him from his position - or even something additionally sinister, centering on a company that offers cryogenic preservation in order to avoid permanent death.
I think what got most people (since, I am assuming, like me, they had not seen the original) is that this goes from some weird murder/mystery involving a sort-of manic pixie dream girl to an unexpected science fiction film. I remember early reviews saying that the movie was confusing, but the ending rather clearly wraps everything up, as long as you take the explanation given to David at the end at face value. Cameron Crowe has tried to say there are alternate ways of taking it, but I think he did so because he wanted the movie to have a bit more depth than it actually does.
As it stands, Tom Cruise's performance of a narcissist brought low by reality, and his inability to accept when reality cracks his fragile concept of what his world is like, is spot on. Cameron Diaz is given some horrible, laughable dialogue, although in the end she plays crazy rather well. Penelope Cruz played the same role in the original and manages to be mysterious as well as alluring. That one-dimensional performance may seem like a detraction, but there are reasons for her being such a construct that are explained. Same could be said for Kurt Russell's largely flat performance as McCabe, since it also serves a particular purpose to David.
There are a lot of strange background details, largely technology that most definitely did not exist in 2001 that Aames seems to have, that also make sense within the context. Still, it feels like, though Vanilla Sky is an okay film, that many of these details are, once again, to give it depth that it really doesn't have. In the end David has to accept reality in one way or another, but it never really feels like he learns anything from his experience other than, ultimately, his vast amount of money really does help him get whatever he wants. Maybe that is why Cruise could play him so well.
Vanilla Sky (2001)
Time: 136 minutes
Starring: Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Kurt Russell, Jason Lee
Director: Cameron Crowe
Sunday, November 27, 2016
I have not seen the other film, but both films take inspiration from Louis Cha's novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes. In this instance, it goes for parody. Again, I find myself at a bit of a disadvantage not knowing the source material, but this is light-hearted and strange enough to overcome that problem.
The evil Ou-yang Feng (Tony Chiu Wai Leung) and his cousin (Veronica Yip) attempt to usurp the throne of a kingdom, but the king refuses to give up the royal seal. After being tortured, the king admits that his daughter (Brigitte Lin) has it. Ambushed by Feng, she manages to escape on her magic horse in search of her kung-fu master in hopes of finding a way to defeat Feng.
Frustrated in his pursuit, Feng has the royal sorceress (Maggie Cheung) provide him with magic boots that allow him to fly. However, he loses one of them and crashes, while the lost boot gets stuck in the head of a the returning master (and lover) of the Quanzhen Clan, led by Chou Po-tung (Carina Lau). Seeing the princess remove the boot from his master's head, he and the other men of the clan pursue the princess for revenge.
Meanwhile, the princess reaches her destination, where the master pairs her with his apprentice Yao-shih (Leslie Cheung), who immediately falls in love with her, much to the chagrin of the woman he has been training with for years. She sneaks off to kill the princess and win Yao-shih back, but runs into a beggar king named Hung Chi (Jacky Cheung), who claims to be her cousin and arranged betrothed. She brushes him off, leading Hung Chi to attempt to kill himself.
The result of Hung Chi's suicide attempt is to survive, but only after knocking Ou-yang Feng unconscious as the latter tries to climb up from the branch he landed on. A fight commences in which Hung Chi tries to get Feng to kill him, but Hung Chi's reflexes are too good to allow himself to be killed. After Feng accidentally poisons himself, the two set off to town to find a doctor.
To further complicate things, the princess's fiancée, Tuan (Tony Ka Fai Leung) is told by his master that he can achieve immortality, but only by finding his true love and having them say, "I love you," three times. He begins his search for a woman with three sixes on her chest that will prove to be the one, and breaks off his engagement with the princess.
The princess and Yao-Shih head to White Bone Cave, where the Book of Yin is hidden and protected by three monsters. They must retrieve the book, learn the way of the Yin Kung-Fu and destroy all 9 pots in the cave in order to become invincible and win the kingdom back. Problem is, Feng is also after the book and, after a fateful night spent at the inn, all parties arrive at the cave. Feng is able to trick the monsters into turning the book over to him, and returns to the palace to put his knowledge to use.
To defeat Feng and save the kingdom the rest of the heroes must band together and use their combined skills. Even that may turn out to not be sufficient - but they also may have some help from an unexpected source.
This is a quick-moving film ensemble film that doesn't spend a lot of time belaboring the plot, but instead provides a number of great comedic action sequences that are choreographed by Sammo Hung. Since it is parody, they really amp up the ridiculousness that can come from wire fighting sequences and the mystic mumbo-jumbo used to justify it. Almost everything is "mystical," "heavenly" or "magic," and most of it has hilarious results. For instance, one move called "Three Flowers Bloom" reverses time and space - unfortunate for Tuan, who is at the time trying to relieve himself.
There are musical sequences, gender-bending, jokes of questionable taste and garish colors all over. I loved it, even though I'm sure there was quite a bit that I missed since I am not familiar with the actual work which they are satirizing. As a person who loves Hong Kong action films, this doesn't matter so much. Many of the conventions they make fun of are a part of the Wuxia genre, so it still works.
The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993)
Time: 100 minutes
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Tony Ka Fai Leung, Jacky Cheung, Carina Lau
Director: Jeffrey Lau
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Knives of the Avenger was toward the end of production, but it was running over budget and causing a headache for the studio. After firing the original director, Bava was brought it to complete the film. Instead of just completing it, he rewrote it and refilmed it in the course of three days.
The result? A halfway decent blending of sword and sandal adventures with the sensibility of a spaghetti western.
Viking princess Karin (Elissa Pichelli) is warned by her tribe's soothsayer to flee with her son Moki (Luciano Pollentin). Karin's husband Arald (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) has been gone for three years, and is feared dead when his ship was sunk off the coast of Britain. Seeing his chance, Hagen (Fausto Tozzi) returns from exile to claim the Arald's throne, as well as Karin for his wife.
Karin leaves her royal digs for a farm in the country. One day, Helmut (Cameron Mitchell), a wandering warrior arrives looking for food and lodging. She initially refuses him, but then decides to let him stay after he defends her and Moki from two of Hagen's henchmen. He begins to be a father figure for the boy, teaching him how to use a bow and throwing knives, the latter being Helmut's preferred weapon. He also begins to fall in love with Karin, but she rejects him, believing that Arald may yet return.
She reveals to him that Hagen was exiled after killing the wife and child of a king named Rurik, whom had recently become allies with her father due to her marriage with Arald. The murders result in Hagen's exile as well as Rurik's vengeance upon Karin's family, culminating in her father's death and her rape at the hands of Rurik himself. In the end, Rurik decides to spare Arald and concentrate his revenge on Hagen himself.
Karin never saw Rurik's face, but Arald did - and that is revealed to be Helmut, who may also be Moki's true father.
While Hagen decides to further press his marriage demands on Karin, Rurik decides to challenge him. Hagen escapes and kidnaps Moki. However, Arald does in fact return and, after briefly battling with Rurik, the two ally to rescue Moki and put an end to Hagen once and for all.
IMDB says that the total budget for this film was $75000.00, but I am wondering if that was just what was invested for the three days that Bava spent filming and post-production. It is obviously on a shoestring, but the sets are not bad, even if the costumes seem a bit laughable at times. There is a fair amount of cheese, especially in the dubbing. I am wondering if the sets were already built and not included in the final budget, or if they did what a lot of productions did and reuse material from previous films.
As for the story itself, if you substitute "reformed gunfighter" for "ex-Viking king with throwing knives," you can pretty much guess what you are in for. There are two saloon fights - the first one not a knock-down drag-out affair, but instead one of those Mario Bava moments that make even a cheap, by-the-numbers production like this stand out. It largely takes place in the dark, with Hagen and Rurik exchanging knife throws.
The second is more traditional, but involves Rurik and Arald going at each other in such a manner that it results in them going out the back wall, down a hill and, finally, having to face each other on the beach before coming to terms. This is also one of the places I think the lack of a budget helped: the swordfights are largely laughable affairs, but the fist fights seem like there wasn't too much time for rehearsal and that many of them may have accidentally landed. I have a feeling that after three days what little everyone got paid was probably spent on bandages and slings.
Despite everything that should be (and is) wrong with the movie, I found it highly enjoyable. Not a required watch by any stretch unless you are a Bava fanatic, but I wish more b-movie films of this type were anywhere near as fun.
Knives of the Avenger (1966)
Time: 85 minutes
Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Fausto Tozzi, Elissa Pichelli, Giacomo Rossi Stuart
Director: Mario Bava
Monday, November 7, 2016
That movie, to Shyamalan's credit, was more the fault of the Smiths, since he was only a hired hand this time around. He took that money and decided to see if he could start all over again with The Visit. Instead of blowing a ton of money (and potentially having the film taken away from him again), he decided to make his own visit into the realm of found footage. It's usually a good move, since even if the movie turns out to be horrible, the profit margin is still going to be huge.
Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenboud) are sent to spend time with their grandparents, whom they have never met, while their mother (Kathryn Hahn) goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend. Becca sees this as an opportunity to get some redemption for her mother, who has not seen her parents since she left them a number of years prior. Seeing the grandchildren is a step toward healing.
The kids meet Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) at the train station and settle in for their week-long stay. Problem is, they are out of range for most of their gadgets and, grandparents being grandparents, bedtime is at 9:30 pm. Only it turns out that grandma has a habit of wandering in her sleep and doing strange things. The grandfather informs the kids that she experiences what is called "sundowning," where because of her dementia she happens to act up at night.
Becca tries to connect with her grandparents through her film making, only to find them strangely distant when it comes to talking about what happened with their mother. Also, townspeople are starting to ask questions about why they haven't been around to do the counseling they normally do. As the week goes on, things get even more frightening for the kids, and they start to realize that they may truly be in danger.
The movie itself is not bad for found footage. Not a lot of jerky camera, although they do stretch out the reason for someone to always have a camera on them, which is always a problem with the genre. Despite it supposedly being an amateur film, many of M. Night Shyamalan's signatures are here. He has always been a good director. The problem in the past has been his writing, since he really has to reach sometimes for that twist ending.
Yes, this one has a twist ending as well. You will probably guess it shortly into the movie, but I still won't give it away. I will say that the advertising for this movie did it no favors, as it makes it seem like the grandparents are Hansel and Gretel style witches. They're not. This is not a supernatural horror film, but rather a suspense movie.
All four main players do well, although the kid rapping was annoying. The good news is this is not as bad as some of Shyamalan's more recent movies, but it really offers no surprises (despite its attempts), nor does it really do anything new with the genre. It's really just Shyamalan pushing the reset button.
The Visit (2015)
Time: 94 minutes
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenboud, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Sunday, November 6, 2016
The reason I mention Southland Tales is that it makes Donnie Darko appear to be even more the brilliant fluke that it is. In the director's cut of Darko, more of Kelly's self-indulgent nature begins to surface, and although it wraps things up in a neater package, it is obvious that through most of the process he is throwing ideas against a wall to see if they stick. He then expects everyone to "get" the hodgepodge, and the so-called director's cut seems at this point an effort to tie those pieces together after the fact as well as mock those who couldn't get it.
Doesn't mean that, no matter how you look at it, this still isn't a great movie, luck be damned.
Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a boy with a number of troubles, sleepwalking being among them. His parents (Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell) love him and do the best to accommodate him despite the fact he lashes out constantly. Rose, his mother, has enough on her plate with her daughter Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) getting ready for college and youngest Samantha (Daveigh Chase) working hard for an upcoming competition with her dance troop Sparkle Motion.
Things radically change when Donnie's sleepwalking leads him to be absent when his house is hit by the engine of jet airliner and landing specifically in his bedroom. Even stranger, authorities can find no record of flights going over his neighborhood, nor do they have any aircraft missing engines. The FAA agrees to put the family up in a hotel and repair their home in exchange for them keeping quiet about the mystery.
It is not too long before Donnie meets the source of the voice that led him away from the house. It belongs to Frank (James Duval), a man dressed in a strange bunny suit who seems to be at the other end of a dimensional wormhole. Frank warns Donnie that the world is going to end in less than a month, on November 1, 1988.
Meanwhile, strange things begin to happen around town. The school is flooded and an axe driven into the head of its mascot, leading uptight Christian teacher Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant) to connect the vandalism to the fact that a new teacher at the school, Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) is teaching literature that Kitty considers inappropriate. Instead, she insists that what the kids need is the motivation from Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), a huckster who lives in town and has become rich selling his self-help videos.
Meanwhile, Donnie himself falls for Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), a new girl in town who lives with her aunt due to her parents being killed. Both are damaged and find solace in each other in different ways. He begins telling her about Frank, and with some help Prof. Kenneth Monnitoff, who teaches science at their school, Donnie gets a hold of a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel, which appears to have been written by a reclusive woman known locally as Grandma Death (Patience Cleveland). Her real name is Roberta Sparrow, and she was once the science teacher at the school, but now spends her time checking her mailbox for letters that never arrive.
As the date for the end of the world approaches, Donnie learns from the book more of what is happening to him and what he needs to do so that the world can go on. His realizations also begin to manifest in him acting out in more and more rebellious ways, laying open a number of secrets that shake the town.
While Maggie Gyllenhaal has gone on to set herself apart from this film (Stranger Than Fiction comes to mind), Jake at this point will be linked to this throughout his career. His portrayal of Donnie as the mirror to many of the characters you would find in a John Hughes comedy of the 1980s is quite convincing. He is alternately shy and rebellious, and it is through his (and Frank's) efforts that this utopian world is shattered.
Although I didn't mention her much, Mary McDonnell, whom most people will remember as the school teacher cum president in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, is outstanding as a mother who loves and will do anything for her children. Her pain in Donnie's rejection of her is quite real, as his her relief upon seeing him alive. More than any other member of his family she is manages to connect in a real manner in a film that largely questions the nature of reality.
The science exhibited here is anything but. However, it is important to remember that we are looking at the "philosophy" of time travel, rather than anything having to do with reality - especially since reality throughout is proven to be quite malleable.
If you want to see both, they are typically together on the Blu-Ray version, but I suggest starting with the theatrical cut and only watching the director's version if for some reason you don't get what's going on. Donnie Darko has a reputation of being hard to follow, but it is quite simple once you accept what is going on, and quite effecting as well. Maybe we will see something like this from Kelly again in the future, but it seems quite doubtful.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Time: 113 minutes
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, James Duval, Mary McDonnell, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze
Director: Richard Kelly
Saturday, November 5, 2016
It seems like the only movie to get mainstream appeal combining Christmas and horror was The Nightmare Before Christmas, and there is still a lot of argument about whether or not it is a Halloween or a Christmas film (I say both).
It is in this atmosphere that Michael Dougherty gives us Krampus. Not surprisingly, his only other major movie he has directed so far was Trick 'r Treat, which is one of the best Halloween movies ever made. It has some flaws, but its pseudo-anthology style did a better job of reminding us of Tales from the Dark Side than the actual movie from that series did. That means there were some high hopes for Krampus.
Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) tops off an eventful day of Christmas shopping by getting into a fight during a school pageant with another kid who said there was no Santa Claus. Max knows he's getting older, but still wants to hold on to some beliefs that world could be better. His parents (Adam Scott, Toni Collette) are on edge and his sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) is growing up. The only one he seems to connect to is his grandmother (Krista Stadler), his father's mother, who is originally from Austria.
To make things worse, his aunt Linda (Allison Tolman) and uncle Howard (David Koechner) have shown up with their three kids and the critical, racist Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Farrell) in tow. After being bullied by his two twin cousins (Queenie Samuel, Lolo Owen) over still believing in Santa, he gives up and rips up the letter he was going to mail to the big guy up north.
This is just the signal a certain other Christmas spirit needs to step in. The neighborhood is suddenly isolated by a blizzard. All power goes out and the neighbors apparently have all disappeared, being hauled away by something terrifying. Beth decides to go visit her boyfriend and make sure he is okay, but is set upon by the a goatlike being and his minions.
Soon the family itself is terrorized by all different means: killer toys, evil elves and what appear to be demonic entities. Only the grandmother knows what is going on, as it happened to her village when she was a kid. She gave up hope on Christmas like Max did, and Krampus, known in Austrian legend for hauling away bad children to the underwold, came and took her family and all the village with him, leaving her as a witness to warn others.
Now Krampus is back, and the family must come together to fight to survive and, in the end, it is up to Max to figure out what to do.
I know that there are some discrepancies here, as Krampus shows up on December 23 rather than his usual appointed time (December 5), and isn't specifically after the bad children. It is a different take on the legend, but certain things are still the same: he is but one of a number of Christmas spirits, some kind, some frightening, some both. He is described as the "shadows of St. Nicholas," but, truthfully: isn't Santa Claus himself intimidating when you're a child? Krampus was the stick to Santa's carrot in many legends, and that is still what he is here. It's also quite in line with Dougherty's previous film, as the ones who get punished by a certain "spirit" of the season are the ones who do not believe.
This also has that Tales from the Dark Side feeling, combined with National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. David Koechner and Allison Tolman's characters are purposeful takes on those of Randy Quaid and Miriam Flynne's characters from that particular film, which has become a classic. It is almost as if Michael Dougherty decided to combine The Grither episode from Dark Side with Christmas Vacation, and it works quite well.
There is a nice combination of CGI and practical effects, the latter largely being the Krampus costume itself. Most of the atmosphere is the isolation that results from the neighborhood being cut off from the rest of the world. It mirrors the fate of the family if Max does not step in: forever isolated in Krampus's lair, never to return to their loved ones.
I am not going to reveal the ending, but it does leave things a bit vague, at least in the movie. There is a comic book tie-in written by Dougherty and his co-writers that supposedly clears things up, but it can still be interpreted in a couple of different ways.
I really hope that there is not a sequel to this at any point. I don't know if this will grow into a holiday tradition like Christmas Story or Christmas Vacation, but it certainly deserves a chance to do so.
Time: 98 minutes
Starring: Emjay Anthony, Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Krista Stadler
Director: Michael Dougherty
Friday, November 4, 2016
Instead, this movie is directed by Michele Soavi, who five years later would direct Cemetery Man, which was one of my first introductions to Italian horror. Cemetery Man was sort of a weird experience for me at the time, largely because it was advertised in the U.S. as a straight zombie film, with no mention of it being from an Italian director. The atmosphere, and particularly the ending, were a bit of an obstacle for me until I got a bit older and started appreciating that style of cinema a bit more.
Since The Church was only presented by Argento, it was interesting to see Soavi at an early point. And, not surprising, there is a good amount of the atmosphere he would bring to his later films, but Argento's fingerprints are all over this.
Evan (Tomas Arana) arrives at a Berlin cathedral to sort and catalog its extensive library. He quickly becomes enamored of Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), who is restoring one of the church's frescoes. He is late to his first day, much to the annoyance of the Bishop (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.), but he also manages to win over the sacristan's daughter Lotte (Asia Argento).
While doing some renovations, workers find that some spaces below the church are hollow. In the work area Lisa also finds an old manuscript. Evan attempts to decode it, eventually discovering that it tells of a "stone with seven eyes" in a secret part of the church. He does find it and, in doing so, injures himself and, through the injury, becomes possessed by a demon.
When he starts to spread the possession to others through his blood, an ancient security device built by the architect of the cathedral goes into affect, locking down the church so no one can get out. The reason for this has to do with its secret: centuries before the inhabitants of a village, thought to be possessed by demons, were put to death by a religious order of knights and the church built upon their mass grave. Only, they were never really dead, and the architect after building the church was buried on the premises, with the Church announcing that an attempt to bury anyone else there would be an act worthy of excommunication.
In order to contain the demons the architect included a spot in the cathedral which, if pressed, could bring the whole of the building down, burying the evil beneath it. The Bishop learns of this and tries to hide it, believing that it is time the world be punished. Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie) also finds out about it and attempts to find the architect's resting place so that he can put an end to everything. Meanwhile, Lotte may just know a way of getting out of the church despite the lockdown, and she has secrets of her own that stretch into the dark past.
There is quite a bit here that reminded me of Lamberto Bava's Demons, only this takes place inside a church instead a movie theater. Some of the characters are even similar, as if this was sort of an alternate take of that movie. There are some shocking death scenes, as well as parts (as usual) that are unintentionally hilarious. Some of the weird humor of Soavi would later use is missing here, but the dreamlike meandering plot is very much in line.
The Church is, however, cowritten by Dario Argento and largely Michele Soavi seems like a hired hand. It also has Asia Argento in an early role as a rebellious teenager, and she's not bad. The other actors are largely passable, with Hugh Quarshie being the only one who really stands out.
It may not be a great example of the genre, but it is an interesting look into the beginnings of one of the later directors of Italian horror cinema, as well as another Dario Argento film even if it wasn't directed by him.
The Church (1989)
Time: 102 minutes
Starring: Tomas Arana, Hugh Quarshie, Barbara Cupisti, Asia Argento
Director: Michele Soavi