Archive | March, 2014

Primer – Review

13 Mar

When I think of time travel stories that push the realms of science fiction farther than what may seem possible, I think of movies like The Time Machine and the Back to the Future movies. Mainly, I think of Doctor Who, because that may be the most innovative and groundbreaking piece of work to ever deal with the concept. Never would I have thought of Primer, a super low budget time travel movie that shows how much you can do with some money and a great idea. With its technical jargon, mind bending story, and characters out for their best interests, Primer plays out like some sort of strange Shakespearean science journal.

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Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are engineers hoping for any sort of major discovery to come their way. Operating out of Aaron’s garage, the two are working on a machine that can reduce the weight of an object, but to their surprise they accidentally invent time travel. This invention opens up a world of possibilities for the two engineers, and they decide to use this new found discovery to travel back through time and use their knowledge of the future to make big money on the stock market. With a set of rules in place to make sure they don’t severely mess up the space/time continuum, everything seems to be working until the two friends begin working behind each other’s back and changing events to their own desires.

This is one of the most difficult movies that I’ve ever sat through, and despite it just being a little over a hour, it felt like a much longer movie. The beginning of the movie really takes no prisoners in terms of scientific and mathematical dialogue. Carruth, the writer/director/star of the movie, stated that he didn’t want to dumb any of the dialogue down for audiences. I can really respect that, especially in a time where filmmakers really want to cater to their audiences. The fact that Carruth can write in such a way may be due to his degrees in mathematics and engineering. The dialogue may be hard to understand, but it sure is cool to listen to.

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What actually makes Primer so cool is how low budget it is (it was only made for $7,000, and most of that money went to buying film stock). Everything about it feels low budget, and I’m not just talking about the aesthetics of the movie. Even the whole time travel machine feels like it could’ve been made in someone’s garage, and it was. There’s no cool sound effects or flashiness that helps a lot of time travel films and shows. This one is completely an idea. We know how the machine works (sort of) and we believe science will happen without special effects telling us. Don’t get me wrong, flashy science fiction is awesome, but for  Primer it is completely unnecessary.

This movie is a sci-fi film that’s heavy on the science, but seems pretty light on the fiction. Yes, of course, time travel is not possible, and scientists say it will never be possible. It’s set up in a way in this movie that it seems like this would be the most possible it would ever be. This is what crude time travel would look like. The whole science behind it is mind boggling, and once the two engineers begin going behind each other’s backs with the machine, the plot becomes almost impossible to follow. This was intentional, however, and trying to piece together everything that’s happening and make sense of it is part of what makes this movie so much fun.

Primer is not a movie for everyone. I feel like the way the plot twists and turns completely out of the space/time continuum without explanation is so unapologetically mind boggling, that people would lose interest. You have to know what kind of movie you’re going into see, and it’s one that doesn’t dumb down it’s theory or dialogue for the audience, nor does it take the time to completely explain everything. If you want a movie that’s going to make you think pretty hard for a couple of days in order to even remotely understand what actually happened, Primer is the low budget masterpiece you’re looking for.

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Repulsion – Review

6 Mar

Horror movies don’t always have to be loud to be effective. In fact, sometimes the quietist of the genre turn out to be the most effective. Just take a look at Roman Polanski’s first English language feature, Repulsion, from 1965. What Polanski has created is a rhythmic descent into madness with a ticking clock working as chisel breaking into the protagonist’s fractured mind, and a soundtrack of piano scales that end in a discordant finale. Repulsion has a lot to say, and tries to accomplish this with as little dialogue as possible, and the result is a surreal trip down the rabbit hole and into the protagonist’s tortured head.

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Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a young woman who earns her living at a beauty salon and lives with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) is a London flat. Carol is frustrated by Colin (John Fraser), a persistent suitor who won’t leave her alone, and Helen’s married boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) who is acting like a monkey wrench in Carol’s life. Already a quiet and unstable person, Carol is concerned with being left alone while Helen and Michael go on holiday to Italy, but Helen insists that Carol will be fine. Carol is anything but fine, however, and soon she quits her job, barricades herself in the apartment, and begins being tortured by demon’s of the past that are real and unreal, which ultimately draws her to violence as a last resort.

I’ve seen this movie be called “slow” and “boring” but I don’t think those are appropriate. Sure, this isn’t a movie where there is a lot of exciting things happening, and I will say that it is slow but it’s for building suspense and character. There seems to be a whole lot of nothing going on for a good portion of the movie, but everything is important for building the character of Carol. This entire movie is one giant character study for her and her psyche, so if it wasn’t built on enough or didn’t have enough time dedicated to it, Repulsion would be a pretty pointless movie.

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While Repulsion does feel very surreal, it has a firm grounding in reality. Carol and Helen’s flat looks exactly how you would expect it to if it was inhabited by two younger women in the 1960s. There are even nice tracking shots following Carol around the city where we get a very distinct idea of where we are in relation to the real world. That just makes the hallucinations and experiences we have with Carol seem all the more weird, knowing that life goes on around her just outside her apartment. What really makes this work is the way Polanski and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor handle the visuals. Polanski creates strange, distorted visions while Taylor lights the apartment very harshly when Carol is experiencing her mind play devilish tricks.

As much time as I can praising Roman Polanski and Gilbert Taylor on their work with this film, I got to give a special nod to Catherine Deneuve, who accomplished acting in such a strange and difficult role at just the age of 22. She doesn’t have too much dialogue to say, and when she does have dialogue, the lines are very short. Sometimes just one word. What really is great about her performance is her facial expressions and reactions. There are different scenes, including the very opening shot, where Polanski focuses on her eyes, which are usually wide and full of paranoia. It’s and excellent performance and still amazing that she accomplished it at such a young age.

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Repulsion is an interesting exercise in psychological horror. The way Polanski frames certain scenes and deals with the sound design makes the internal struggle of the protagonist feel so concrete and perceptible. Catherine Deneuve gives a memorable performance, and she really is the only one onscreen for a good portion of the time. The pace may be slow and it may seem tame by today’s standards, but Repulsion is a must see for any fan of the horror genre.

Holy Motors – Review

4 Mar

There are movies that experiment with experimental concepts and surrealist moods, and they succeed wonderfully. Things are often not explained and left to the viewer’s own interpretations. Holy Motors is one of those movies, except I feel like it didn’t quite succeed. This is a beautiful movie to look at and it is wonderfully acted, but I’m missing what all the hype is about. To me this was a pretentious movie that only exists so that director Leos Carax can flex his film making muscle.

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Oscar (Denis Lavant) is a mysterious man. He leaves his home early in the morning and gets into a limousine with his driver Céline (Edith Scob). Céline makes mention of nine appointments that Oscar is going to make by the end of the day. We soon learn that these aren’t average meetings. First, Oscar dresses like an old female beggar and asks for change on a busy street. Then, Oscar dresses up like a crazy vagrant who lives in the sewers and abducts an American model (Eva Mendez). These types of events continue through the rest of the day, sometimes getting violent, but Oscar always seems ok and he is just doing his job.

This is what lies on the surface of Holy Motors. Obviously, there’s a lot this film is trying to say and it gets it across ok enough… I guess. By then end of the movie, I felt no connection to the characters nor was I really interested in the “story” but I did understand what Carax was saying about the evolution of film making and how technology is moving us away from the more personal films of the past. To me, this is sort of a good message but I can’t help finding it pretentious. Is this to say that Carax is the only film maker who still understands the medium? Like I said, he’s flexing his muscle, and his views on film making are spotty and only have some good points.

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Denis Lavant is the best part about this movie, and if it wasn’t for him, I really wouldn’t have any interest at all. This man is incredible, and most of his role require a lot of acrobatics, dancing, and other physically demanding tasks. This is why he is perfect for the role of Oscar. Oscar has to become many different people on this movie, each one of them significantly different from the last, and some of them demanding true dramatic performance. Lavant hits all of these characters on the head, and I would almost recommend Holy Motors solely to see Lavant at work.

Holy Motors really is a beautiful movie and Carax knows how to frame a shot, but that isn’t enough to pull this movie from the mire. I felt so distanced watching this movie because I didn’t connect with anyone or anything. This isn’t supposed to be a character driven movie, but I feel like I should at least feel something. That’s just it though. This movie didn’t make me feel anything. Everything that happens in this movie is artificial, which is kind of the point, but it made me feel like I was watching a movie instead of feeling like I was watching someone’s life play out like a movie.

I have a strange kind of respect for Holy Motors, but that’s not to say I could enjoy this at all. Denis Lavant is amazing, and one scene involving a symphony of accordions is great. The rest of this movie is Leos Carax saying “Look what I can do! Don’t I have so much to say?” It might have been that I didn’t like the distance I felt, or how little is explained. To me, Holy Motors is a cold exercise in surrealism that I just couldn’t get into. I did like seeing Edith Scob don the white mask from Eyes Without a Face, though. It wasn’t necessary, but it was pretty cool.

Schizopolis – Review

3 Mar

Well… This was probably one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. When I think of Steven Soderbergh, I think of a very talented and versatile director that seems to have the ability to take on any genre, from the complicated comedy of Ocean’s 11, to the intense drama/thriller films of Side Effects and Traffic. But then there’s Schizopolis, a twisted experiment in surrealist comedy that reminds me of something David Lynch would make it he had a much lighter sense of humor. Steven Soderbergh making something like this, though, I never would have expected.

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Fletcher Munson (Steven Soderbergh) is an office employee for the company run by T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone), the inspirational founder behind a new self help/religion, Eventualism. Fletcher and his wife (Betsy Brantley) have a relationship that can only be described as nonexistent, speaking only in the underlining context of how they really feel. When Munson gets even more distant when he has to write a speech for Schwitters, his wife decides to take her love elsewhere to Munson’s doppelganger, the timid dentist Dr. Korchek (also Steven Soderbergh). Meanwhile, the swinging exterminator, Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen), who spends most of his time bedding the housewives of the houses he sprays is somehow fitting into all of this.

There’s not much I can really say about Schizopolis. It’s something that I never expected out of Steven Soderbergh, but it’s something I would have liked to see more of. It’s non-linear plot line is only the first of the strange things about this movie. There are events of the past that are making their way into the future, nonsensical babbling, and two people who are one and the same without offering any explanation. At the beginning of the movie, a character of Soderbergh announces that if there’s anything that we don’t understand about the movie, it’s our fault and not theirs.

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This is a really funny movie, and a lot of that goes to Steven Soderbergh’s acting. This is the only movie he’s ever acted in, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him in something else. Of course, that probably won’t be happening after he pretty much gave up on movies after the way Hollywood treated his work. This movie feels like something very personal that he wanted to make, and the only reason it ever got made was because he wanted to do it. As silly as it is, Schizopolis does have cool things of communication and lack there of, and of the true work involved just to get through everyday life.

Schizopolis is a movie that makes sense while not making sense at the same time. There are things that are never explained, and then some things that are sort of explained. We aren’t meant to always understand, but to just go along for the ride and you might learn something along the way. Steven Soderbergh has crafter a hilarious experimental comedy that reminded me of Inland Empire if it was even remotely funny. If you love strange movies and don’t mind things that exist just to exist, check out Schizopolis wherever you can find it.

“Lone Wolf and Cub” Series – Review

1 Mar

Samurai movie are a real unique genre because they present a way of life that seems so distant and antiquated, it’s sometimes hard to believe that people once lived like this. Their sense of honor to the point that they would commit the act of seppuku for something pretty minor by today’s standards seems odd, but it’s unbelievably fascinating. The fun doesn’t stop there for the Lone Wolf and Cub series, a six movie saga that spanned from 1972 – 1974 and was based off a manga of the same name. These movies are entertaining, violent, often funny, and takes full advantage of showing off geysers of blood that clearly inspired film makers today, like Quentin Tarantino.

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Throughout these six films, the main plot goes as follows. Ogami Ittō (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is a shogun executioner during the Edo period of Japanese history. After the Yagyū clan conspire against him to claim his role as executioner, he changes his life and becomes an ronin assassin for hire with his young son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Amidst his adventures, Ittō and his son have to deal with vengeful Yagyū clan warriors, shinobi ninjas, sadistic fighters donning strange weaponry, and murderous women. While the violence never ends, Ittō has one real goal: to restore honor to his family name and kill the leader of the patriarch of the Yagyū clan, Retsudo (Yunosuke Ito).

This is a pretty slim summary of everything that happens in this series. There’s so many awesome and memorable things that happen in these movies that I wish I thought of. The coolest thing out of all the movies is the baby cart that Ogami Ittō pushes around. At first, the cart seems to just be a crudely constructed cart made of wood, solely used to carry Daigoro around. Well, that couldn’t be farther from what it actually is. This is a super weapon that I would love to have on my side in any battle. The cart is built using an arsenal including a spear, hidden daggers activated by buttons, shields, and a strange chain gun like device that has the ability to take down many people in a span of a few seconds. Things like this that happen or is seen in these movies are so cool and make them as memorable as Kurosawa’s more classical samurai films, such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.

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This would be a good opportunity to discuss the strange history of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies. The history of the movies themselves is nothing too crazy. Unfortunately, the manga wasn’t finished until 1976, and the last of these movies was made in 1974. That being said, don’t expect a very satisfying conclusion. But what I really want to mention are the Shogun Assassin movies. I knew about those movies before I knew anything about the Lone Wolf and Cub series, and it was surprising to figure out that they are pretty much the same movies. Shogun Assassin and its four sequels are made by editing down footage from the six Lone Wolf and Cub films and splicing them together. I was interested in seeing the Shogun Assassin movies, but when I heard what they actually were, I decided to move straight to the source material and I regret nothing.

The character of Ogami Ittō should be way more popular than he actually is. He’s skilled to the point of almost being superhuman, and the body count of these movies shows that. In the final film, White Heaven in Hell, Ittō holds the record of most body counts by one character at 150 kills onscreen. One of the most memorable scenes is from the first film, Sword of Vengeance, when Ittō cuts the head off of a Yagyū samurai in a duel, complete with a geyser of blood and a dramatic sunset in the background. These movies aren’t just fun and exciting, they’re very well made and look awesome.

The Lone Wolf and Cub series is a great collection of films that I guarantee will entertain you. The characters are memorable, the story is epic, and the history of the time period is really interesting. The films themselves aren’t that long, even though there are six of them, which is good because they don’t mess around. If you love classic samurai films or the history of Japan, but most importantly, if you love having fun, check out this film series.