Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wristcutters: A Love Story

In Wristcutters: A Love Story, director Goran Dukic weaves a very bizarre story about love and suicide. Wristcutters is a film which, somehow, manages to blend dark comedy and sweetly optimistic sentiment into a charming and thoroughly unconventional love story.

The main character of the film is Zia (Patrick Fugit), a young man who's heartbroken after his girlfriend breaks up with him. In the film's first scene Zia commits suicide by slitting his wrists. After he dies, Zia awakes in an afterlife entirely populated by individuals who have committed suicide. Even stranger than this is that Zia discovers that the world of this afterlife is exactly like the old world, just a little bit worse. The skies are always overcast, the cars are all run down, and no-one has a good apartment. Zia spends time in the afterlife working at a pizza place (a job slightly worse than the one he had when he was alive) and hanging out with his Russian friend, Eugene (whose entire family has committed suicide and lives together in a small house).

But when Zia hears news that his ex-girlfriend has committed suicide, he sets out on a road trip with Eugene to find her. Along the way, the two pick up a beautiful hitch-hiker (Shannyn Sossamon) and have adventures in this bizarre world. Together these three encounter meta-physical events, floating pets, and bottomless pits underneath the passenger seat of a Chevy.

It's a veeeeery weird little film with a lot of dark humor (especially when the film flashes back to how characters committed suicide as they appear). But as the film develops, traditional elements of romantic comedy start to emerge. By the time the end rolls around, Wristcutters becomes very sweet and optimistic. The relationships between the three main characters say a lot about friendship and love. And beyond that, the world of Wristcutters is an intricate one which is very worth exploring.

Apparently Goran Dukic believes that there's always a chance to find love in life, even if you've already ended it.


Director/writer Duncan Jones' film Moon is a quiet character study which just happens to be set in outer space.

The film centers around Sam (played by Sam Rockwell) an astronaut working on a lunar refinery base for a 3 year stretch. Sam is alone, accompanied only by the base's computer system (creepily voiced by Kevin Spacey). The viewer meets Sam a few weeks before he's scheduled to be picked up and returned home. From the very beginning, it's clear that his time alone on the moon is starting to wear on him. He's getting aggressive, feeling ill, and starting to see things which aren't there. Very soon, Sam is exposed to a revelation which changes the meaning of his entire life.

The central twist of the film occurs very early on and it's therefore nearly impossible to talk about the plot of the film without ruining that twist.

Accompanied by Clint Mansell's haunting score, the viewer is propelled with Sam through a series of events which gradually explain not only his nature, but also the nature of the world in which he lives. But at the film's heart, it is a very particular character study. Jones' plot allows the exploration of Sam's character in a very unique manner and Rockwell makes use of this to deliver a fantastic performance. Kevin Spacey's understated performance goes along well with Rockwell's, making the computer he portrays enigmatic and sympathetic.

Moon is a low budget science fiction joy which uses the best conventions of the genre to explore what human life really means. It's a lofty goal, but Jones and company accomplish it with ease.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Mission

Director Johnnie To's film The Mission is another entry into a long line of Hong Kong Triad gangster films which have dominated Hong Kong cinema since the 1980s.

The plot is extremely basic. A crime boss is being targeted by unknown assassins. After barely escaping an attempt on his life, his brother in law (played by Hong Kong mainstay Simon Yam) hires a group of mercenaries to guard the boss. The rest of the film focuses on these mercenaries (some who know each other and some who don't) building friendships and becoming a well-oiled unit.

So what makes this film different or interesting given that this plot is hardly original? Well, it's the depiction of how these mercenaries work as a team. They actually fight like realistic mercenaries. There's no leaping through the air and firing dual pistols. The mercenaries in the film are precise and calculated. They advance covering one another, they guard corners, and they show genuine concern for their lives and well-being. The action scenes are taut and simple, foregoing the traditional Hong Kong bombast for sturdy pacing. The exchange of bullets has punch and suspense. While other Hong Kong actioners would show an attack by a sniper as one minor element for the hero to overcome, The Mission portrays it as an entire dramatic set-piece where are lone attacker is easily a devastating threat for a highly trained team.

Even more enjoyable are the film's depictions of the team's vast downtime. Particularly fun is a scene showing the team waiting for their boss to get out of a doctor's appointment. To assuage their boredom, one team member starts playing soccer with a balled up piece of paper. The rest of the team slowly joins in, their stoic demeanor slowly melting to join in on the simple game. It's a nice moment, showing the growing bond between the mercenaries in a simple, unobtrusive fashion. It also illustrates that though these men are trained killers, they still have some depth. The kind of depth seldom shown in genre movies of this type.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Black Sheep

It's strange that a New Zealand made horror-comedy about genetically engineered killer sheep hasn't infiltrated the popular lexicon.

But it hasn't!

Black Sheep begins with a young man with a crippling phobia of sheep returning to his family's New Zealand sheep farm following the death of his father. He arrives to find that his brother has been conducting experiments on the sheep to improve their wool. But these experiments have unintended side effects. The sheep have been given a voracious hunger for human flesh.

Naturally, the intervention of radical animal activists lets loose the sheep and mayhem ensues.

And grand mayhem it is indeed. We get to watch our phobic protagonist and friends battling these deadly, yet extremely innocent looking foes. And very few things can provide as much bizarre joy as seeing sheep leap through the air and tackling unexpecting farmers.

The sheep attacks are always played for laughs but are also exciting and well-paced. The creature effects for the film were all done by New Zealand's own Weta Workshop (the group responsible for the stunning models and creature effects in the Lord of the Rings films), so the monsters are frightening when they're supposed to be and hysterical the rest of the time. Like the creature effects, the other elements of the film's production value are also quite high. The cast is clever and charming with their kiwi accents being endearing and menacing as need be. The farm setting is rendered well and a final segment involving a crop-duster and a series of explosions is of a suitably grand-scale.

Black Sheep is a popcorn midnight-movie in the best sense. It's absurd, coarse (there are a few sheep sex jokes thrown in for good measure), and suitably original in a genre where little invention is expected. It's recommended fare for viewers who want to watch a film and say aloud "I can't believe someone made a film about this!"


No, it's not the overly preachy film about race relations which the motion picture academy made best picture.

It's the 1996 David Cronenberg film starring James Spader and Holly Hunter. This Crash focuses on a couple (James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger) who are trying to survive a slowly deteriorating marriage. A chance accident injures them both and draws them into an underground community composed of individuals who fetishize automobile accidents. Holly Hunter is the seasoned crasher who draws the couple in and helps them re-energize their sex lives.

As the couple becomes more deeply involved in the groups, the stakes start to raise. While the danger and excitement of car crashes renew the couple's sexuality, their exposure to increasingly intense sexual situations result in infidelity, amputation, and deliberately staging accidents. As the end approaches, this get disturbing fast.

Crash features difficult subject matter, intriguing visuals and non-traditional pacing. Fans of Cronenberg's work likely aren't surprised by these elements.

What is surprising about this film is how deeply it explores sexuality. At the film's beginning, Spader and Unger are a normal couple. Yet they're profoundly unhappy and sexually unsatisfied. The arousing excitement of car accidents fills a void in their lives and introduces them to darker parts of themselves that neither of them were willing to acknowledge.

Crash paints an interesting, if not entirely successful picture of human sexuality. Though not pleasant to watch, it is profoundly interesting.

They Live

John Carpenter's 1988 film, They Live, is about a lot of things.

Primarily, it's about a homeless man who finds a pair of sunglasses which allow him to see the alien invaders who are taking over the Earth. Using these sunglasses, he joins a resistance force trying to reclaim Earth from its alien conquerors. And he does so in the manner he know bests. Namely "kicking ass and chewing bubble gum"! And he's all out of gum (yes, this is the movie that line comes from).

On it's most basic level, They Live is a generic sci-fi action film starring a professional wrestler (Rowdy Roddy Piper) in the lead role. But just under the surface is a sly social commentary. In They Live, the aliens conquering the world have disguised themselves as human beings. Using their disguises, these aliens have occupied positions of wealth and power. Their tools of domination are mass-media broadcasts influencing the general public to watch TV, consume commercial products, and stay in dead-end jobs. The aliens are deliberately breeding economic strife to turn humanity against itself with poverty and deprivation.

In short, the aliens are the Republican party under Reaganomics.

Carpenter is pretty obvious in his critique of 80s commercialism and the domination of the American rich. But what this leaves the viewer is a ridiculous action film with just enough social relevance to give you an excuse for enjoying it. It's true that the ridiculously long (and infamous) back alley fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David is reason enough to watch the movie. But the social commentary, goofy plot, and well crafted direction make this movie essential cult sci-fi viewing.


Japanese, Samurai, Zombie, Gangster Movie!

Those words are the only ones that I need to sell Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus.

This ultra low-budget Japanese gem is a bizarre concoction combining an ancient battle between good and evil, zombie reanimation, modern-day Yakuza and sword battles in the woods.

This is, in traditional sense, a terrible film. The star, Tak Sakaguchi, appears to have learned his acting craft from cardboard stand-ups of far better actors. The budget dictates that the entire film be set in the woods. The female lead is relatively unattractive (a fact commented on hysterically by the film's director in the DVD bonus features). The director acknowledges that they tried to hire a prettier actress, but could not afford it :(

What appears to be a recipe for disaster is actually a film rendered more charming by it's limitations. Underlying these problems are real pleasure. There are literal scenery-chewing performances by the other leads, Hideo Sakaki and Kenji Matsuda. The actions scenes are actually well choreographed and the final fight would be impressive even in a far-more expensive film. Finally, the real selling point of this movie is that no-one takes it all that seriously. The cast and crew are clearly having fun pushing the ridiculous subject-matter and focusing on style over substance. The visuals are a real treat for fans who enjoy Underworld-style kitschy action, zombie attacks, and wild melodrama.

So grab a beer, some friends, and a pizza. Then watch this movie. If you find humor in the absurd, it will be time well spent.