Sunday, September 30, 2012

September Quick Picks and Pans

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) In an age when most of us will change our career several times during our lifespan, it’s almost unfathomable to imagine that someone could work at (let alone love) the same job for 75 years.  David Gelb’s documentary features 85-year-old Jiro Ono, as he and his middle-aged son Yoshikazu carry on the art of sushi making in his tiny restaurant.  We witness the laborious process that goes into each dish, and hear from Ono’s fans, critics and protégés as they describe what it’s like to be in the presence of a master at the top of his craft.  His legacy is defined by working with care and unerring precision, while continually striving for improvement.  It’s also about loving your job and doing it well.  Like Ono’s fantastic culinary creations, Gelb’s film is uncluttered and simply told.  It doesn’t get bogged down in the side stories, but focuses on his passion for great sushi.  If you like sushi, the stunning photography will prompt you to hop on the next plane to Tokyo to visit Ono’s restaurant.  Even if you’re not a fan of sushi, you’ll be drawn in by this true-life tale of craftsmanship, family responsibility and honor.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix Streaming.

The Fall (2006) This visually impressive film from Director Tarsem Singh reminded me of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (the Terry Gilliam version), where several characters took on double roles in an elaborately realized fantasy world.  The bridging story takes place in a 1920s Los Angeles hospital, where a little girl with a broken arm, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), meets paralyzed movie stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace).  He entertains her with a tall tale to pass the hours, while trying to coerce her into securing a lethal dose of morphine.  The fantasy scenes are distinguished by beautiful cinematography (shot on location over a period of four years) and imaginative costumes that immerses the viewer in a storybook land where anything seems possible.  While I wanted more depth from the characters in the fantasy world, the visuals resonated in my mind.  Even if the parts are better than the sum, The Fall is a sumptuous treat for the right side of your brain.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix Streaming

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) I felt conflicted about this cult favorite. On the one hand, I appreciated director/co-writer Sam Peckinpah’s artistry, but I found it difficult to connect with the film’s misogynistic tone, and its protagonist, the hard-drinking, ne’er-do-well piano player Bennie (Warren Oates).  Bennie enlists the aid of his former prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) to discover the whereabouts of Alfredo Garcia, whose head carries a $1 million bounty.  It’s a race against time as he drives across Mexico, with others hot on the trail of the elusive Garcia.  Populated with mostly unlikable characters, but skillfully directed, I can’t quite bring myself to condemn this odd movie.  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia leads up to a brutal, nihilistic climax that’s as compelling as it is numbing.  This has been touted as one of Peckinpah’s most personal films, presumably culled from his life experience.  If so, I suppose I’d rather hear about his life than live it myself.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Deadhead Miles (1972) This obscure film (unavailable on DVD) from director Vernon Zimmerman and writer Terrence Malick stars Alan Arkin as con-man turned trucker Cooper.  He runs into a series of misadventures as he travels the highway with a stolen big rig truck, hauling a load of bricks and chickens.  One of the highlights is his encounter with a ghostly trucker who assists stranded travelers (could this have been the inspiration for the “Large Marge” scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure?).  I wanted this film to be more than it was, but it’s never quite witty enough to work as a satisfying comedy, nor quirky enough to qualify as more than a second-string midnight movie.  Still, it might be worth a look if you’re cruising the list of Netflix Instant movies for something competently made and just a little off the beaten path. 

Rating: ***.  Available on Netflix Streaming

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Once Over Twice: Cube

(1997) Directed by Vincenzo Natali; Written by André Bijelic, Vincenzo Natali and Graeme Manson; Starring: Nicole de Boer, Maurice Dean Wint and David Hewlett; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

Cube is a beguiling mixture of science fiction, horror and brooding drama that challenges our assumptions and compels us to arrive at his our own conclusions.  The debut feature film by director/co-writer Vincent Natali still seems as fresh and inventive today as it did when it debuted 15 years ago.  Natali, who started out as an animator for Toronto-based Nelvana Studios, drew from multiple sources of inspiration for his nightmarish vision, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, Arkadiy Tarkovskiy’s Stalker, and Ridley Scott’s Alien.

The basic story is reminiscent of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”  Several individuals wake up in a windowless prison, with no knowledge of how they got there or the identity of their jailers.  The startling opening scene, as one of the prisoners makes a futile attempt to find a way out, sets the tone for the rest of the film.  Within the first few minutes, we’re alerted to the potentially fatal (and gory) consequences that lurk around every corner of this three-dimensional labyrinth. 

One of Cube’s conceits is that its characters are more, or less, than they seem (as illustrated by the autistic savant Kazan, played by David Miller, and the escape artist Rennes played by Wayne Robson).  David Hewlett is suitably absorbing as the enigmatic prisoner Worth, who might just know more about the cube than we’re led to believe.  Nicole de Boer also turns in a noteworthy performance as the surprisingly resourceful and mathematically gifted Leaven.  Nicky Guadagni plays Holloway a free clinic doctor with a penchant for conspiracy theories.  She’s the most vocal member of the group, expressing her indignation about being torn away from her home and being violated by her unseen captors.  Her experience as a prisoner only appears to validate her suspicions.  Maurice Dean Wint provides the only sour note from a performance standpoint, in his over-the-top portrayal of alpha male-turned-sociopath Quentin.  Good or malevolent, significant or ineffectual, everyone has something to contribute to unraveling the mystery of the cube.  Analogous to the parable about the blind men and the elephant, each character holds a different piece of the puzzle, but no one can see the big picture.  The characters deduce their prison’s dimensions and number of cells, which reveals nothing about the cube’s location or ultimate purpose.  It could be in the middle of the Mohave Desert, hundreds of feet underground, or at the bottom of a lake.  We’re left to speculate if it’s all part of  some grand experiment, watched over impassively by unseen individuals, or worse, a terrible machine set in motion with no one on the outside controlling anything.

Natali shot Cube in just 20 days, with a meager budget of approximately $365,000 Canadian.  These severe constraints on time and money dictated the clever utilization of available resources.  One six-walled room, along with a partial three-walled room, could be used to stand in for multiple rooms, creating the illusion that the characters were in a small part of a much larger complex.  Confining everything to the one set tested the resolve of the cast and crew.  Natali likened the claustrophobic arrangement to a “giant Betty Crocker Easy Bake oven,” which, as a side effect, contributed to the tense atmosphere of the film.

Mathematical consistency within the cube was a vital component of the story.  According to his DVD commentary, Natali was “almost phobic” about math, and consulted with a statistician to help him realize the Cartesian coordinates necessary to make the cube prison a reality.  Mathematics almost takes on a supporting role in the film, as Leaven* discovers that prime numbers, may be the key to unlocking the cube’s secrets and finding a way out.

* Fun fact: Not unlike Natali, Nicole de Boer confided that she was “terrible” at math in high school.

Natali crafted a film that was purposefully ambiguous and disorienting, and deliberately avoided any frames of reference to the outside world.  We never learn why any of the characters were selected for their respective fates, or what the cube’s overarching purpose is.  Those who like their movies wrapped up in a neat little package by the end will be frustrated and disappointed.  I found it invigorating, however, to keep guessing about the cube until the very end, and to be content with not having all the answers.  While Cube is obviously the product of several influences, it never seems derivative.  Natali’s first film is also his best.  While the conclusion to the film is not the most marketable decision, it takes us in an infinitely more intriguing direction.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Invasion of the Body Snatchers Redux

“…there’s no way you can keep from sleeping, either.  You can fight it off for a time, but finally…you’ll have to sleep.” – from The Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney

What if the people you’ve always known and loved have suddenly become someone different?  Jack Finney’s seminal 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, which inspired four movies in four decades, examined this fear of identity loss and transformation, and the death of what makes us quintessentially human.  Finney’s novel detailed how individuals could be copied exactly, emulating the same memories, physical features and mannerisms, yet producing a shadow of the former person.  The author stops just short of calling this missing component a soul, but it’s clear that the simulacrums that emerge from these space pods are bereft of the essential element that makes us human.  The copying process could be likened to a digital recording that perfectly replicates the source material, but fails to capture the warmth of the original.  The prospect of this change is inherently terrifying because it occurs without our complicity, as we drift off to sleep.  The inevitability of sleep provides a catalyst for these eventual transformations.  It’s only a matter of time before everyone succumbs to the new paradigm.  Only two of the four adaptations dared to follow the darker themes of the novel, the prospect of an unbeatable situation, to its logical conclusion. 

The book and subsequent movies have contributed the term “pod people” to our pop culture consciousness.  It’s been used interchangeably to describe someone whose behavior has become erratic, or alternatively, one who thinks and acts like everyone else. In Finney’s novel, the main character, Dr. Miles Bennell, observes subtle changes in personalities that tip him off to the fact that his friends and acquaintances are no longer themselves.  While it would be virtually impossible to properly translate Dr. Bennell’s inner monologue to a film, the common thread between each of the adaptations is the loss of self.  Each version, to varying degrees of success, explored the basic existential question: when the transformation occurs, will we still be the same person when we awake?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) The first interpretation of Finney’s novel is also the closest to the source material.  Kevin McCarthy stars as family doctor Miles Bennell, who watches things unravel as the residents of his small town succumb to the will of a sinister alien scourge. Much has been written about this version as a reflection of Cold War paranoia and the perceived threat of communism.  In an era typified by mostly mindless b-movie drive-in programmers, director Don Siegel introduced a very different type of science fiction monster.  Passive acceptance of mob mentality, promoted by the film’s pod people, is the only choice offered to the film’s protagonist.  Bennell’s chilling admonition during the film’s climax that “you’re next” drives home this inevitable message.  The hopeful ending, added at the insistence of the film’s producers, is the only downside of an otherwise effective adaptation. 
Rating: ****

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) One of the rare remakes that surpasses the original.  Director Philip Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter use the novel as a departure point, distilling Finney’s themes of identity and complicity.  The story moves south from the sleepy Northern Californian town of Mill Valley to the sprawling metropolis of San Francisco.  Kaufman expertly creates an atmosphere of overwhelming paranoia, where no one can be trusted, as illustrated by Jeff Goldblum’s character Jack Bellicec, who proclaims that everything is a conspiracy.  Donald Sutherland is especially likable as public health inspector Matthew Bennell, and serves as the film’s anchor. 

Why this adaptation stands apart from other versions is all in the details.  The characterizations are nicely fleshed out with quirks that bring out their inherent humanity.  The throbbing sound and disturbing makeup effects contribute to a profoundly disorienting, unsettling experience.  Leonard Nimoy also provides a memorable supporting performance as Bennell’s disbelieving psychiatrist friend Dr. Kibner.  There’s also a nice nod to the original film with inspired cameos by Kevin McCarthy and the original film’s director, Don Siegel.  This remains the definitive film version, improving on the ending of the novel by eschewing the artificially upbeat, deus ex machina conclusion.  Kaufman never lets us off the hook, proving that there’s no safe haven.  

Rating: *****.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Body Snatchers (1993) With the 1978 version fresh in my mind, my first reaction to this film, was “why bother?”  Upon re-assessment, I concluded that my initial judgment was a bit harsh.  Although Body Snatchers doesn’t really add anything new, it doesn’t embarrass itself, either.  Director Abel Ferrara takes the premise from the original story, but moves the setting to a U.S. Army base.  Some high points are an icy performance by Meg Tilly and a great scene in a kindergarten class where all of the children’s finger paintings look alike except for the new kid’s.  Most of the characterizations are weak, and the whole movie seems rushed and hastily slapped together, suggesting that some scenes were cut out.  This is especially evident with Forest Whitaker’s character, Major Collins.  He’s introduced early in the film, and doesn’t reappear until a pivotal scene in the latter part.  The movie loses its footing by the end, during an ill-advised action scene in a helicopter gunship that dilutes the impact of the paranoid premise and shifts the focus away from the human story.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD.

 The Invasion (2007) I was prepared to give this movie the benefit of the doubt, despite its poor reputation (Warning: a few spoilers lie ahead!).  I gave Director Oliver Hirschbiegel and writer David Kajganich points for at least trying something a little different – this time, instead of space pods, it’s a space virus that causes people to transform into emotionless simulacrums of themselves.  It’s a modern-day thriller, meaning it’s chock-full of generic action scenes, car crashes and copious amounts of product placement.  Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman (sporting an unconvincing New York accent) starred in this troubled production, which required reshoots by a different director, James McTeigue.  This time, Dr. Bennell (Kidman) is a psychiatrist who learns about the replacement people through one of her patients, Wendy Lenk (played by Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in the superior 1978 version).   The emphasis is on action, rather than character-driven drama in this film, which could have worked if the filmmakers had made better choices.  The actions of the pod people are completely inconsistent, ranging from impassive and drone-like to rage-filled and violent (throwing Molotov cocktails just doesn’t seem right).  The happy ending trashes the concept of an unbeatable foe, demonstrating that becoming a pod person is apparently a reversible process (WTF?).  There’s also a lame attempt at social commentary, asserting that war and inequality are created by our differences (duh!), and suggesting that we might have been better off becoming pod people to achieve lasting peace.

Rating: **.  Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cinematic Dregs: Piranha Part Two: The Spawning

(1981) Directed by James Cameron and Ovidio G. Assonitis (uncredited) ; Written by Ovidio G. Assonitis, James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee; Starring: Tricia O'Neil, Steve Marachuk, Lance Henriksen and Ricky Paull Goldin; Available on DVD.

Rating: **

Is Piranha Part Two: The Spawning as bad as its less than stellar reputation suggests?  In a word, yes.  It’s not really a direct sequel to Joe Dante’s amusing 1978 Jaws rip-off, but a blatant attempt to ride the coattails of that former movie’s status as a minor B-movie classic.  First-time feature film director James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron) was fired from this Italian production early in the filmmaking process, and replaced by producer Ovidio G. Assonitis.  Cameron allegedly broke into the studio to edit the film, but probably nothing short of burning the negatives and starting over would have helped this mess.  Judging by the finished results, it’s no surprise that Cameron wanted to distance himself from this production in later years.

In the opening scene, a young scuba-diving couple frolic beneath the waves, unaware of the terror that lurks in a nearby shipwreck.  As their impromptu amorous encounter turns deadly, and the water turns red with blood, we’re promised 90 minutes of good trashy fun, but alas, those hopes are dashed early on (or vindicated, depending on your point of view).  The film is mostly populated by characters that you don’t care about, who are simply being set up to be the mutant piranhas’ next meal.

Considering the fact that virtually every choice made by the filmmakers was a bad one, I’m probably splitting hairs by taking issue with the title, but not much spawning goes on, except from the humans.  Most of the story, such as it is, takes place on a Caribbean resort.  Anne Kimbrough (Tricia O'Neil), a recently divorced scuba instructor for the resort, is one of the first to discover the piranhas.  She lives with her teenage son Chris (Ricky Paull Goldin), who appears a bit too close to his mother.  In one particularly uncomfortable scene, he sneaks up to her in bed with a wriggling fish – evoking some unintentional Freudian imagery.  It’s supposed to be playful, but just comes across as intensely creepy.

 Long, lost relative of Napoleon Dynamite, perhaps?

Lance Henriksen, who went on to have memorable roles in future Cameron flicks The Terminator and Aliens, does what he can with what little he has to work with as Police Chief Steve Kimbrough.  He seems eternally pissed off; sort of an angrier version of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody.  His mood isn’t too surprising, considering that his ex-wife is running around with handsome male tourist Tyler Sherman (Steve Marachuk).

But Tyler isn’t who he seems to be.  We eventually learn that he’s a U.S. government scientist, responsible for this new breed of piranha.  They were the result of an experiment to produce a hybrid species, genetically engineered for their ferocity.  Of course, describing them as a cross between piranha and flying fish doesn’t really explain why the fish are seen flapping their pectoral fins like bat wings, since flying fish don’t exactly fly, so much as glide.  I’m willing to concede that the hybrid piranha, a freshwater species, could live in saltwater thanks to the flying fish DNA, although I doubt the filmmakers were concerned with scientific veracity.

The unintentionally silly scenes work better than the film’s deliberate attempts at humor (such as a horny middle-aged woman prowling the beach for younger conquests and two nubile, and poorly dubbed, young women tricking a dimwitted hotel chef).  There’s something sublimely funny about watching the actors hold on to the killer fish as they’re being attacked.  In one of the movie’s most mind numbingly idiotic scenes, Chief Kimbrough unnecessarily jumps out of a helicopter and into the water to save Chris, even though his son could have easily rowed to safety on his own.  In another scene, one of the mutant piranhas suddenly flies out of a body in a morgue to latch onto a nurse’s neck.  The film is riddled with plot holes the size of the Bermuda Triangle – I never understood why the piranhas used the sunken ship as a base when they had the whole ocean to explore (although it becomes a convenient point for the film’s climax).

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning doesn’t provide very much for those seeking insight about Cameron as a young filmmaker, except for a crumb or two.   The underwater scenes, a familiar environment for Cameron, are at least competently shot.  The DVD is presented in pan and scan, which alters the original compositions of the shots, but don’t expect a director’s edition anytime soon.  Piranha Part Two: The Spawning falls into the category of so bad it’s nearly good.  In its defense, the movie works better as a comedy than many actual comedies, but you need to watch it in the right frame of mind (or state of inebriation) to appreciate it.  You can almost feel your brain cells dying off one by one as you watch this.  Two out of five stars is probably generous, but it’s hard not to feel at least a smidgen of affection for this level of ineptitude.