Review: Blame

Blame (2010, directed by Michael Henry)

A troubled young girl kills herself. A group of her friends head straight from her funeral to the home of her former piano teacher, and lover, looking for vengeance and justice. What they find instead is more than they bargained for...

One of the real joys of a festival as big as Toronto is stumbling across a new talent, someone who demands that you tuck their name away in the back of your head and wait for their next offering. Michael Henry was one of those people for me this year. I walked into Blame with zero expectations for a little Aussie revenge thriller from a first time writer/director, and came out with another name tucker away in the back of my head.

Don't get me wrong. Blame doesn't re-invent the wheel. This isn't a debut on the level of, say, Reservoir Dogs. You know basically what's going to happen pretty quickly: the plan falls apart, new information comes to light, relationships are strained. But Henry knows exactly what he wants to do and where he wants to go, and the film marches forward with an energy and confidence that belies it being a freshman effort. Partly this a product of the script, which finds plausible reasons for its characters not to ask the obvious questions (or at least not ask them quickly enough) and avoids too many convenient coincidences. But a lot of credit has to go to the cast, particularly Kestie Morassi as the dead girl's sister Cate. She's the emotional center of the film, putting the pieces together just a step or two behind the audience, and plays it all with amazing strength. She, moreso than Sophie Lowe in the showier role as best friend Natalie, came out looking like the next A-list Australian acting export to me.

Blame is just a tight, taut thriller, with no tricks or twists. If it reminded me of anything, it'd be the early work of John Dahl, back when he was coming off the nouveau noir one-two punch of Red Rock West and the Last Seduction. But Henry's very much got his own voice and style, and I'm dying to see where he goes next.

Review: Stakeland

Stakeland (2010, directed by Jim Mickle)

Given the rash of vampire movies and post-apocalyptic movies that have seen the light of day recently, it was probably inevitable that we'd get something like Stakeland. Throw enough Book of Elis and 30 Days of Nights and I Am Legends into the collective unconscious and eventually a post-apocalyptic vampire road movie was going to spring forth from somebody's brow.

Which is why it's incredible, not that Stakeland exists at all, but that it's so damn good.

The plot is beautifully stripped down. Vampirism has swept the globe and destroyed civilization; wherever humans gather in numbers the vamps will follow, forcing survivors to stay isolated. In the States, a battle-scarred hunter known only as Mister rescues a young boy, Martin, after the rest of his family gets eated, and together they start a journey north to the rumored safe haven of New Eden.

It's impossible to over-emphasize how perfectly that rescue scene sets the tone for what will follow. Nothing says that the usual rules of decorum have been tossed out the window better than watching a vampire squat up in the rafters, suck Martin's infant sister dry and toss her aside like she was a piece of fruit. It's not the most gruesome thing you'll see in a horror movie this year, but it might just be the bleakest, and finding the right level of bleakness is the single most important job any post-apocalyptic film has. Stakeland finds it inside the first five minutes of the movie, and never lets it go.

As Martin and Mister head north, they find that the bloodsuckers aren't the only predators they need to worry about. A Christian cult owns the highways, preaching that the vamps are God's curse upon unbelievers, and the Brotherhood and their deranged leader Jebediah prove to be far more dangerous than anything with fangs.

One of the big things that sets Stakeland apart is the care that's taken with the world around Mister and Martin. The cause of the vampiric outbreak is never explained, but its effects on civilization are spelled out in meticulous detail. A Marine they travel with for a while, when asked who won the war in the Middle East, snaps back "No one. There was nobody left to fight it." Basic pharmaceuticals become valuable currency. And while the vampires themselves are fairly standard-issue mindless, blood-crazed, tough as hell killing machines, the implications of that form of vampirism get fully explored, both by Mister in his efforts to trap them, and by the Brotherhood's use of them as weapons. I won't spoil the movie's brilliant, jaw-dropping set piece, but it's a thing of pure genius in its execution and its understanding of how evil and inventive humans can be.

Stakeland is inevitably going to get compared to two films in particular: Zombieland, due only to the similar titles and the fact that humans are an endangered species in each, and Hillcoat's The Road. The first is just unfortunate, as Stakeland is deadly serious in ways Zombieland couldn't be -- there's no Bill Murray cameo here (oops, spoiler!), no silly graphics displaying the rules to the audience. The two are different genres entirely, really. But when it comes to the latter, I'd say that not only does Stakeland hold its own against The Road, it's actually the superior film.

It all comes back to that right mix of bleakness and hope. Stakeland doesn't have what you could call a happy ending, but it does give you that real possibility that there may be a future after all. And in a world as dark as this one, just that little glimmer of light through the black is all you need to get you through.

Review: Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010, directed by Andrew Lau)

Although it mutates slightly with every re-telling, the story of Chen Zhen should be familiar to anyone who gives a damn about martial arts flicks. Bruce Lee played him in Fists of Fury. Jet Li played him in Fists of Legend. And now it's Donnie Yen's turn, picking up where he left off from his mid-90s TV show with Legend of the Fist.

The opening scene is hellacious, and maybe the best single sequence of Lau's career. Chinese conscripts, doing the shit jobs in the trenches for the Allies during WWI, get pinned down by a German machine gun nest after the French forces retreat (I know, totally unbelievable, right?). One of their number, Chen Zhen, vows to see them home safely, and then proceeds to tear through the Krauts like a hurricane using nothing but two bayonets and sheer awesome badassery. It's a ridiculous set piece that shows Yen at his intense, acrobatic best.

The movie quiets down considerably after that. Many years after the war, Chen Zhen turns up in occupied Shanghai under an assumed name, and begins working with the resistance to try and kick out the Japanese. From here Legend of the Fist either goes off the rails or becomes a total nuthouse of fun, depending on your perspective, as Lau seemingly tries to shoehorn every single genre he can think of into the movie. There's a Casablanca-esque nightclub run by Johnnie To regular Anthony Wong, a romance with the singer who turns out to be a Japanese spy, Yen running around in a Kato/Black Mask-esque costume to foil assassinations attempts (the movie's other great fight sequence, as Yen steals the costume right off a mannequin to beat up some Japs), rampant xenophobia against anyone non-Chinese, and probably a dozen other bits I'm forgetting.

The final battle in the dojo with the evil Japanese general who killed Chen Zhen's master, and his hordes of incompetent minions, is a letdown after the adrenaline rush of the opening and the street fight in the middle, but for the most part Legend of the Fist is a worthy successor to Jet's effort, even if it can't match Bruce's -- or for that matter, Yen's previous best offerings like SPL. But then, what can, really?

Fox News Admits They Aren't a News Organization

Stupid Twitter. I'm trying not to pay attention to anything outside my film fest bubble right now, but this got through. FoxNews is suing Missouri Senate candidate Robin Carnahan for using footage from a Chris Wallace interview with Roy Blunt, Carnahan's opponent, in a campaign ad.:

In the ad, Wallace addresses Blunt and says, "You just said a moment ago that you have to show that you’re the party of reform but some question whether you are the man to do that. In 2002, you tried to insert language into the Homeland Security Act to help Phillip Morris tobacco [company] while you were dating that company’s lobbyist. And your campaign committee’s paid $485,000 to a firm linked to lobbyist Jack Abramoff.”

Wallace then asks Blunt, "Are you the one to clean up the house?"

Sounds like a pretty routine campaign attack ad, doesn't it? Your opponent gets tossed a tough question from a journalist, and you take advantage.

The basis of the lawsuit, though, is that the interview was not an attempt to publicly disseminate information, but was instead proprietary programming no different than a clip from the Simpsons:

Fox News claims that the "verbatim reproduction" of the interview without consent "(1) allows Defendant to profit commercially without paying the traditional price; (2) causes substantial harm to the value of the FNS Interview, and (3) was based upon the unique expressive content of the FNS Interview."

Notice how none of that makes any sense at all in this context, if Fox is in fact a news organization. Winning a Senate seat is not a for-profit commercial enterprise; an interview by a news organization that gains a reputation as having been a tough one enhances, not damages, the value of that interview; and news is not "expressive content" in the legal sense.

However, if Fox is assumed not to be a news organization, the basis for the suit becomes clearer. The first point still makes no sense (unless, of course, Fox believes running for office is a commercial venture), but if Fox is just a right-wing propaganda arm then having a Democrat use one of their interviews to help their campaign would cause substantial harm to the value of the interview, and as a creative work (rather than a public transmission of fact) the "expressive content" argument would be much stronger.

So go ahead, Fox, pursue this lawsuit. Prove to the world that the aim of your organization is not to provide objective facts to the American public. It won't really be news.

Review: Super

Super (2010, directed by James Gunn)

Some people are born to be heroes, receiving the spark at birth that makes them one of the few among us capable of doing the extraordinary when necessary. And some have heroism thrust upon them, and find themselves in the right place at the right time in order to do the right thing.

Frank D'Arbo is none of those people.

James Gunn's Super is yet another film about an everyday Joe who feels a powerful need to don a costume and take a swing at evil. If it seems like the genre is played out, Super proves that it isn't. Its adherence to a DIY aesthetic, both in terms of plot and production values, gives it a realistic(-ish) grounding that makes the comedy work all the better. And moreso than most low-rent wannabe superhero movies, comedy is what Super does best. Rainn Wilson brings the perfect amount of brooding ineptitude to Frank's efforts to transform himself into the Crimson Bolt, scourge of criminals and theater line-butters alike. Nathan Fillion is at his deadpan best as the Holy Avenger, the star of a Christian kid's show and Frank's inspiration (well, he's also inspired by a hallucination in which he's attacked and his skull opened up by hentai tentacles and his brain is touched by the tiniest tip of God's finger). Even Kevin Bacon gets in some great lines as the drug dealer who steals away Frank's wife.

But when it comes to the comedy quotient of Super, nobody bring the pain quite like Ellen Page does. We're used to seeing her as a wisecracking, wise-beyond-her-years teen and occasionally as a two-dimensional projection in someone's dream world (based on the latest NASA tracking on Inception's plot, anyway). What we're not used to seeing is her as a total spaz. She plays Libby -- comic shop employee, wannabe sidekick to the Crimson Bolt (Boltie!) and sufferer from any number of possible mild personality disorders -- with a full-throated roar of stupid that has to be seen to be believed, and has me worried that her research for the role involved her following around a couple of my ex-girlfriends for a few days. She is unbelievably funny as the wildly enthusiastic Libby, and the cosplay sex between her and Wilson is probably the funniest single scene in any movie this year. Page's "It's all gushie" will be burned into your memory forever, and with any luck will be on t-shirts by next summer.

Of course, it's still a movie about an ordinary man trying to become a superhero, which means that just like Kickass, it forgets all about the inherently ludicrous nature of that quest when it comes time for the big finale. The Crimson Bolt goes from being a joke in a badly-made costume who flails away at people with a pipe wrench to transforming into a brightly-colored Punisher for the final assault on Bacon's ranch, blowing away perps with reckless abandon and uncannily good aim. At least when the movie decides to take the premise seriously it doesn't shy away from the consequences, but it's still a cliched way to take it home. One of these days, someone's going to come up with a better ending for this story.

Until then though, Super is the best of the bunch. Shut up, crime! The Crimson Bolt has his eye on you!

Review: Let Me In

Let Me In (2010, directed by Matt Reeves)

Here's the Let Me In Cliff notes for those of you who need it: A bullied young boy, Owen, isolated and trying to navigate through his parents' divorce, makes a new friend when Abby and her father move into the apartment next door. His new friend turns out to be a vampire though, forcing him to make some terrible choices along the path to adolescence.

At least, that's what it's supposed to be about.

Based on the novel and film Let the Right One In, Reeves' take on it makes for a good movie. I'm not going to slag the very idea of Hollywood remakes, and I'm certainly not going to rag on this particular remake; it's a solid film. It's a dark coming-of-age story, darker than American audiences are used to, and for that reason alone it deserves to be seen.

But it left me a little bit cold. The source material isn't just good, it's great, and Reeves wasn't able to push Let Me In to those heights. The problem wasn't in the performances either. Chloe Moretz was very good playing a very different role than Mindy Macready. Any worries anyone had that she might be a one-trick pony should be put to rest. And Kodi Smit-McPhee is just as good opposite her, better here than he was in The Road. The two of them trade vulnerability back and forth like (hmmm... what were those crazy kids big into collecting back in '83? Pogs? let's go with pogs) pogs, with Abby's soul-weariness and Owen's frustration at his own weakness driving the movie forward.

Really, the emotional disconnect is all on Reeves. His decision to use CGI for Abby's attacks on her victims is as distracting as it is unnecessary, and it doesn't help that the quality of the animation is about the level of Raimi's first Spider-Man. And he makes Owen's mother even more distant than she was in the Swedish version, not even giving the audience a clear view of what she looks like.

The near-removal of Owen's mom from the film is just a symptom of the biggest issue I had with Let Me In though. Owen's choices, in the end, are too easy. He's supposed to be conflicted about siding with the 'evil' Abby, and yet the film gives him no reason not to cast his lot with her. Coming-of-age stories have to put their characters through a crucible so that they can find out who they are and who they are capable of becoming.

Let The Right One In did that. Let Me In does not. And that, in the end, is the most crucial difference between them.

Review: Passion Play

Passion Play (2010, directed by Mitch Glazer)

Holy fuck is this thing bad.

Mickey Rourke plays a Chet Baker-esque, washed-up junkie trumpeter who gets dragged out into the desert to be killed by a hitman because he fucked the wife of a gangster. When he's miraculously saved, he staggers off and finds a sideshow in the desert, where he meets a freak played by Megan Fox, who amazingly enough is there because she has bird wings growing out of her back and not because of her thumbs. He springs her from her metaphorical cage with the intent to trade her to the gangster, but in a shocking twist falls in lobe with her instead. Things go downhill from there.

It's hard to pick out exactly what the worst thing about Passion Play is. Certainly Mitch Glazer's script and direction are neck and neck. The set-up goes for magic realism territory and winds up in Painful Clicheville instead (i.e. when the hitman, played by a mute Chuck Liddell of UFC fame, is about to shoot him, Mickey looks up at a hawk soaring in the sky. Seriously, a fucking hawk) while he delivers his clumsy script in the most stifling, stylized example of early '90s LA style I've seen since, well, every bad movie shot in the valley in the early '90s. It's all crappy smooth jazz covers of classic songs, and laconic camera moves, and no sense of urgency or danger or anything except that oblivious arrogance Steely Dan made a living out of skewering.

What might actually be worse than Glazer's efforts though is Rourke's performance. He phones it in to the point that he's almost engaged in self-parody, staggering through lines of dialogue so incoherently that he has to repeat himself two or three times just to wring some semblance of meaning out of them. He's not just bad. He actually gets out-acted by Fox, which is really a hell of a feat when you think about it.

About the only decent thing about the film is Bill Murray as the gangster, who as per usual manages to look just fine despite the cinematic atrocities taking place around him.

Let me put it to you this way: fully two-thirds of the audience at the screening I was at was gone by the time the house lights came up. And most of those who stayed only stuck around to settle a bet on what position would get used for Rourke and Fox's sex scene - would he be on his back, with her spreading her wings above him? Or would he be kneeling, so she could tenderly enfold him with her feathers?

I would have preferred some sort of elevated doggie style myself, with Fox flapping madly to keep herself aloft and at the right angle, but that kind of outside-the-box thinking wasn't going to happen in Passion Play.

Review: Griff the Invisible

Griff the Invisible (2010, directed by Leon Ford)

A little Aussie trifle starring True Blood's Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten), Griff the Invisible is about a timid oddball who deals with the misery of his lonely life by dressing up as a superhero and patrolling the streets. This is no Down Under Kickass riff though. While Griff does seem to occasionally scare off a mugger, for the most part he is completely wrapped up in his fantasy world, monitoring the city via satellite and computer network, getting calls from the commissioner on his red Batpho... err, Griffphone and battling shadowy figures dressed in Victorian finery.

His secret identity is threatened by outside forces though. Tony the office bully at work won't leave him alone, forcing him to use his homemade invisibility suit (a white painter's suit soaked in invisible ink, i.e. lemon juice) to sneak into the office at night to play practical jokes on Tony. More dangerous though, his straight-laced brother's new girlfriend Melody is a misfit like him, and seems far more interested in being part of his life than in his brother's. What's a delusional, socially maladjusted freak to do?

While Griff the Invisible ties hard to be Benny and Joon, only with Charlie Chaplin replaced by Bruce Wayne, it fails on a couple of fronts. While the film is admittedly low budget no effort is made at all to distinguish Griff's fantasy missions from reality, which makes it tough to tell exactly how out of touch Griff is. Worse, the conflicts keeping the couple apart are more on the level of Three's Company-esque misunderstandings than real issues to be resolved, sapping the story of any real urgency.

It's a cute idea for a movie, and everyone involved is game enough, but it just doesn't do anything to distinguish itself. Especially in a festival already containing James Gunn's Super, this one's as invisible as its title character wishes he could be.

Fun Day

Having dinner with John Turturro later, plus the Casino Jack party with George Hickenlooper and Kevin Spacey, and might get a chance to corner Guillermo for a chat about Mountains of Madness too.

Review Backlog

Fubar II / Legend of Beaver Dam
The Edge
Client 9
22nd of May
!Women Art Revolution
Boxing Gym
The Promise: The Making of Darkness On the Edge of Town
Game of Death
John Carpenter's The Ward
Horrible Way To Die
Rabbit Hole
13 Assassins
Red Nights