Friday, November 30, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 4

The gap ever widens between the close of the 2007 St. Louis International Film Festival and the time of my “coverage” for the films I saw. To help me get these all wrapped up, I’m going to skip the remaining short films and just focus on the features. This batch, hopefully the penultimate, contains my favorite film from the festival.

SLIFF 2007 reviews for Nov. 14-15:

Title: Juno
Director: Jason Reitman
Country: USA
Score: 9.5
Last festival, my favorite film was “The Lives of Others” and my taste turned out to be unusually in league with the general consensus because the film grabbed the audience choice award that year. Once again, my top pick also shared the popular sentiment, and “Juno” quite deservingly took home the audience prize. This is surprising for a number of reasons:

1) Comedies don’t win top prizes.
2) I almost never like comedies.
3) This happened to be a comedy about teen pregnancy.

I wasn’t enamored from the get-go, especially since the opening sequence (“It all started with a chair…”) didn’t strike me as particularly funny and the intro credit sequenced slightly underperformed next to “American Fork’s” similarly indie pomo-mo pop-art antics.

However, the early Rainn Wilson cameo (Dwight of “The Office” fame), which has been misleadingly over-represented in the previews, set things on track. Juno (Ellen Page) is taking her third pregnancy test at a convenience store while Rollo (Wilson) nettles her with wacko insensitive barbs. There is a lot of fast verbal play, weird alternate-reality slang and cheerfully delivered over-sharing (in a welcome mix of cynicism and honesty) that lasts, with defiance, consistency and self-enrichment, through the rest of the movie.

Juno is impregnated by light-weight, good-guy (isn’t that refreshing?) track runner Paulie (Michael Cera), but Juno initially doesn’t see him as being all that important to her plans. After briefly entertaining the quick-fix of visiting the abortion clinic and getting on with her life, she decides to bear the child and give it up for adoption. Using wanted ads, she finds a pair of local yuppies (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) who want a child, but can’t have one. There seems like an obvious solution for making everyone happy, but complications ensue.

I know, I know. This doesn’t seem like a recipe for the funniest movie this year, but it completely comes together. Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” was a minor comedy gem with a brilliant topical edge, but with “Juno” he’s already entering into the pantheon of great comedic directors. A lot of the credit is due to his deft directing, but writer Diablo Cody arguably deserves the most thanks. His script is fast, lively, irreverent and witty with a style, tone and even a dialect that blazes with originality. The high quotibility factor of the film ensures it more than just first-time viewing pleasure. Rather, I predict it will have a major “cult” college following with an extended lifecycle in away messages, Facebook quotes and dorm-room whiteboards.

The TV show alumni (Bateman and Cera were the father-son team from “Arrested Development,” Wilson comes out of “The Office” and Jennifer Garner heralds from “Alias.” I’m probably missing plenty, but I’m completely clueless about television anyway.) comes together quite well, without ever creating a villain as an easy vent for the tough issues and high-strung emotions. Newcomer Ellen Page absolutely steals the show and will hopefully bring her talent for timing and sass to many future projects. The combination of dismissive wit, self-deprecating wisecracks and easy-going, yet unshakable determination make her character unsentimental, but both sympathetic and badass. She never borrows from the mellow, melancholic hipster or loser-cool gene pool so popular with other American indie-coms.

Title: Rainbow Song
Director: Naoto Kumazawa
Country: Japan
Score: 6.5
“Rainbow Song” is a bittersweet coming-of-age romance set in modern-day Japan awash in nostalgia and naivety, but surprisingly moving even when it overdoes the sappiness. A lengthy intro shows underling Tomoya being abused by his TV station employers. He hears about a plane crash in America and learns that his long-time friend/crush Aoi has died.

The majority of the film gets busy filling us in on the event leading up to the tragedy, including how Tomoya meets Aoi while stalking someone else. They become buddies at film school together where they make ambitious student projects including a tale about the last seven days before the end of the world. Despite there obvious feelings for each other, Tomoya is simply too shy and awkward to mention his love and the relationship teeters on consummation before Aoi decides to head abroad and see the world to gain a wider perspective on life and art. Tomoya stays behind and almost gets married to a eerily manipulative husband-hunter with an uncomfortable, though hardly evil, secret.

“Rainbow Song” feels like a first film and would be a lot more sweet and disarming if it actually were. It would also be easier to overlook the cloying abundance of heart-warming swoons, loudly symbollic devices (such as the title rainbow) and mediocre metaphors (the unrequited love story is divided into seven chapters and terminated by a death… just like the film-within-a-film romance set before the end of the world).

What’s surprising is that despite the transparency of Kumazawa’s emotionally leading techniques, the film does make the characters real and he generally convinces us to care about them. They are plain and unexceptional, but somehow their enthusiasm for casual reality, simple fun, big plans and young love is infectious enough for us to join them on an emotional rollercoaster.

I feel the film would have been improved by ending trapped within the flashback, defying its overly contrived framing structure and emphasizing the nostalgic fondness of memory over the uncertainty of the present. Kumazawa also should have toned down the erratic attempts at deeper meaning and wider scope, which hamper his intimate story and are handled poorly anyway. I would also have appreciated it if Tomoya were not quite so clueless, since his complete inability to understand his or Aoi’s feelings make him maddeningly frustrating to watch.

Visually, the film strikes just the right tone. The low-budget charm fits the story and there is a sense that a special connection between the characters and creators lingers in the air and lends authenticy. Kumazawa is rarely fancy (he’s borderline documentary at times) but when he does pull a good shot (a rainbow reflected in a puddle, a POV shot lying on the ground during the filming of an “invisible” gas attack, a sparing walkthrough of Tomoya’s apartment) it gets just the right amount of special attention.

Title: Fresh Air
Director: Agnes Kocsis
Country: Hungary
Score: 4.0
Not every female-directed Hungarian movie can be a masterpiece, and yet somehow I was sort of hoping that my good fortune with “My Twentieth Century” would carry over. Kocsis lacks almost everything that made the other film great: creativity, inquisitive gusto and a sense of cinematic exploration. “Fresh Air” is a late-comer to the boredom-is-art school of indie pretension, and while the characters have a degree of genuinely convincing ennui, I only get marginal utility from contemplating the void that lies under modern working-class East European life.

Viola works at a pay restroom outside a subway and contends with mind-numbing labor, dismal surroundings and humiliating stench. Her daughter, Angela, survives being ground into the dirt by her school’s oppressive inhumanity by dreaming about becoming a successful fashion designer. She does minor, but dedicated, sewing invariably in her favorite color (green), but really has no future to speak of.

Most of the film deals with the interplay between their personal tribulations and the mutual pain they inflict on each other through silence, neglect and alienation. In a ritual of delicate cruelty, Angela opens all the windows when Viola comes home, drawing attention to her discomfiting smell. Viola already scrubs compulsively for hours in the tub to mask the ordor and maintains an encyclopedic array of spray scents. Viola ignores her daughter completely, occasionally sneaking off to dance and leaving Angela to lunge desperately towards love and freedom. She runs away to pursue a fashion design opportunity only to arrive back home having hitchhiked in a circle without ever being missed. In the impressively anti-climactic (in a good way) ending, Angela abandons her dreams and adopts the zombie-state and occupation of her mother, who has been injured defending the modest toilet takings.

It is so clear from the beginning that Kocsis intends to depress us by making us stare into the awful faceless impassivity of capitalist society that the film loses its chance to surprise or ensnare us with its quiet revelations. Instead, we must wait through torturously long sequences to arrive at bitter codas easily visible long in advance. The drawn-out inevitability is both boring and insulting, a very bad combination by any standard.

The characters themselves and their interaction (or lack there of) do have a brutal realism while maintaining an interestingly stagy symmetry. Their alternating screen time keeps the kernels of dejection more palatable than if we had only their individual non-stories. I did find that the characters were treated with a gentleness and respect that was admirable and despite the seeming emptiness of their lives, Kocsis displays a laudable faculty for character development through minute gestures, banal conversations and morose introspection.

Kocsis never quite gets the visual gloom and pacing rhythm she aims for. Too much repetition and stagnation prevent the soft flow of implacable workaday routine from building the ugly momentum it needs. Instead there is the uneven sensation that we are about the break free from the cycle and explore new ground (which might be intentional), but instead the plot simply recoils into its bland status quo once again. The cinematography tries to frame the oppressive, uniform city as a desolate alien habitat, but fails to make dullness any more meaningful than dullness naturally registers.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Review of Secret Beyond the Door

I’ve been meaning to write a review of a Fritz Lang movie for a while now. The great German-American director had a career full of brilliant classics like “Metropolis” and “M” and lesser-known, but equally influential, noirs. I was particularly interested in doing an Iceberg Arena comparing “Dr. Mabuse” (1922) and his underappreciated “Spies” (1928), both epic-length silent gangster serials that helped pave the way for modern thrillers and action films. I might still do that, but after recently watching “Secret Beyond the Door,” I’ve been moved to speak out in favor of this so-called “minor” picture, not the least because I was so annoyed by the negative AllMovie review.

The aforementioned review begins by saying, “Even star Joan Bennett and director Fritz Lang regarded The Secret Beyond the Door as the weakest of their collaborative efforts” referring to the four films “Scarlet Street,” “Woman in the Window,” “Man Hunt,” (which I haven’t seen, so except in from my next statements) and “Secret Beyond the Door.” On some levels, I can see how “Secret,” when considered in such company, deserves its lesser reputation: it has the most unpolished script, the most experimental narration, the strangest setup, arguably the most dated psychology and easily the worst ending. Yet it’s my favorite.

Perhaps my newfound love for it stems from my bias towards good premises. I tend to give extra points just for creativity regardless of execution. It’s not that I found the delivery in “Secret Beyond the Door” to be lacking, but it sheds the conventional restraint and dignity of oscar-winning “prestige” pictures.

Let me pitch the movie to you:

Joan Bennett plays Celia, a flighty NYC socialite who’s slipped out of every relationship she’s ever been in and finds herself vacationing rather aimlessly in Mexico. There she meets an enigmatic architect (Mark Lamphere played by Michael Redgrave) while staring with undisguised fascination at an impromptu knife fight. Her narration ensures us that she is eminently in control of the budding relationship as she falls quickly and deeply in love.

But Mark has many, many secrets. Celia arrives at his brooding estate to find the master of the house absent, but surprise (!), Mark has a creepy precocious son, David, by a previous marriage. And he has an tyrannical sister. And he employs a secretary/nanny who hides a hideous facial burn scar. And he has six rooms transported from around the world, grafted onto his mansion and preserved in the exact state they were in when a notorious psychosexual murder (always with a female victim) took place! And there is another room. A room with nothing but a single 7 adorning the door. A locked door. A door which Mark says must never, never be opened. A door beyond which lies a terrible secret!

Come on! If that isn’t awesome, than neither is Jean-Claude Van Damme trying to stop a terrorist plot to destroy America with exploding designer jeans (see “Knock Off”). Fritz Lang’s story is not only impossibly weird even by his own eccentric standards, but it’s so full of mentally fraught psychoses and rapid-fire red herrings that I could hardly keep up with its impressions and implications.

Usually I get pretty sick of Freudian mumbo-jumbo, but here the sheer excess sports an unmistakable satiric grin. I can’t be the only one who watched this movie and saw a certain amount of skepticism and exasperation with psychology clichés about overbearingly-matriarchal, trauma-filled childhoods that somehow explain away the complexities of the adult world. Sure, Lang hangs his resolution on exactly these tenets, but everything from the foreshadowing sardonic pop-psychology suggestions of a snobbish party-goer to the ridiculously over-the-top intersection of multiple climactic psychological revelations in the finale, testifies to a directorial touch more akin to ironic showmanship (a la the Coen brothers) than pure naivety (William Wyler).

As for the script, the overt psychological foregrounding does lend the film the type of imbalances that get English teachers and studio producers alike wagging their fingers. For one thing the narration overpowers the spoken dialogue, sticking to Celia for 95% of the film, but somewhat inexplicably switching over to Mark for a single scene before returning to Celia again. The script indulges in some extreme melodrama, giving cataclysmic emotional weight and accusatory music-enhanced drama to everything from a vase of lilacs or a missed train connection to a knife fight and David’s deadpan insistence that Mark murdered his mother.

Though wholly removed from reality, and even traditionally movie-land exaggeration, I’d have to argue that part of the proof [of quality] is in the pleasure. Like a Douglas Sirk melodrama (but in shadow-laden gothic B&W rather than Technicolor candy-shop hues), the frenzied tone and heightened emotionalism unchain irresistibly watchable inner demons and display an artistry unfathomed by safe “A-movie” directors.

Yet I don’t even think “Secret Beyond the Door” need restrict its audience to the cultish niche for bizarre, but otherwise unimpressive thrillers. The writing shows not just audacity, but remarkable plotting and efficiency. I always love when a writer can squeeze double duty from a single idea, making an object or a piece of information fit comfortably in its first appearance and then bringing it back when you least expect it. An example might be a western where the villain uses a strategically placed mirror to cheat the hero at cards, but at the end of the film the same mirror serves to reveal to the hero that the villain is hiding behind the bar. A poor example (which I know you’ve seen before) is when a character just happens to mention that their sleeping pills, when taken in large doses, work as a colorless, odorless, untraceable poison. Hmmm… I wonder if and how that will come up later?

“Secret Beyond the Door” tends to use a barrage of red herrings and inexplicable complications to mask the precise direction of the plot (which might still be a tad predictable for some), but at least one case has a elegant beauty to it:

Celia cuts the bottom off a candle to make a wax print of Mark’s secret key. There is some tension when Mark notices the sudden change in candle height, but otherwise we have no reason to expect the incident to serve any purpose other than getting a copy of the key into Celia’s possession. However, Lang gets one of his best and most chilling twists out of an unexpected return to this event.

Another conspicuous achievement of the script is the even-handedness with which it treats the characters. Lang has a history of presenting sympathetic criminals and corrupt pillars of society, but rarely has he spread the uncomfortable quirks and fatal flaws so thickly over an entire ambivalent cast. Mark, though honestly in love, is textbook Hollywood-style crazy. His son appears to be a morbidly-fixated Asperser’s syndrome patient. His sister effectively manages the estate, but power-binges and has a strange relationship with her brother that combines maternal, paternal and sadistic impulses. The nanny is obsessively attached to Mark, whose life she once saved, and both the presence and non-presence (don’t ask) of her scar send her into a series of physical tics and mental terrors. Celia herself is presented as having commitment problems, emotional insecurity and a clear death-wish that struck me as sexual in nature. (You can see my point about how pervasive and over-the-top this is even compared to Freud-lovin’ Hitchcockian thrillers). With all this, it really is quite difficult to tell who is good or bad; dangerous or just off-kilter.

So having made a case for the script, I’m not really sure what still needs to be said. The acting from Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave is in top-form and perfectly modulated to the nourish atmosphere. That goes without saying for some, but the co-stars aren’t really household names these days and many of their films are slipping from underrated (I know Molly shares my love of Redgrave in “The Quiet American”) to forgotten.

Meanwhile, the visuals straddle the line between Lang’s monumental masterpieces and his low-budget quickies, occasionally gifting us with the Expressionism of his home-country (see the poster art at the top of this review). He saves most of his oblique angles for the bold shadows that tear through the frame, upset the pleasant wholesomeness of the manor and generally covering the essential minimalism of the sets. He puts his camera just where it needs to be to make us feel in danger, yet just far enough to make us lean into the fear, be it to see the expression on the face of a woman proud to have instilled murder in her admirers or to catch a possible tinge of blood in a sealed-off crime-scene. One of my favorite shots looks down on a party at Mark’s manor as rain spoils their vapidity and the narration snipes at their hastily retreating forms.

Find an excuse to see this film. Fritz Lang, film noir, gothic horror, my review, whatever gets you excited about it. If you haven’t seen other Lang features, take a detour to round up his uncontested greats, but do give this a chance even if you have to find it on VHS (no DVD version yet) or watch it on TCM. Let’s get this out of the cult niche.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

Saturday, November 24, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 3

While I initially predicted that the Thanksgiving holidays would give me plenty of time to catch up on my reviews from the St. Louis International Film Festival, I had not taken into account traveling home, enjoying time with the family and just relaxing. It has been nice to get back into the routine of things. Both Katie and I admitted to being a little burnt-out by the nightly double and triple features and we needed some time to unwind. Currently, I'm back in Kansas for a few days and I've been making the most of my family time. Now everyone's in bed and it's time to get some writing done.

And so on to the reviews from Nov 13:

Title: The Sacred Family
Director: Sebastian Campos
Country: Chili
Score: 4.0
While not as bad as "No Regret," this domestic drama from Chili was definitely one of the more disappointing features at the festival. I went into it fairly blind with two main reasons for attending: curiosity about Chili's national cinema and an unusual time slot when little else was playing.

The film unfolds almost entirely at a single beach house where Marco is returning to his parents to present Sofia, his recent girlfriend. They are a little biased against her since she recently injured his leg when she crashed his car while drunk. Just the same, they are taken with Sofia's sheer energy and enthusiasm and Marco's father develops more than a little crush in response to her second-nature flirting. After vacillating for several hours, the mother leaves to help a friend in need and Marco goes on an angry walk. He returns to discover his girlfriend having sex with his father, but keeps the knowledge a secret. He broods and then decides to get his revenge.

As an intense drama that is supposed to be shocking and emotional, "The Sacred Family" is somewhat of a dud, releasing muted explosions long after the war has already been won by better dramas from the 1970's. The same goes for the dialogue, which tries to show off an intellectual side, but lacks new insight. While often realistically clumsy (kind of a good thing in this case) it lacks the kinetic chemistry required to sell the vying ideas about life (wild bohemian versus settled middle-class) and the dark passions smoking underneath the friendly exteriors. The action is at times suspenseful and almost even thrilling, but never truly captivating; probably a side-effect of Marco's lackluster central performance and light-weight development.

Like "No Regret," the main failure is the amateur visuals. Shot on digital, the film tries for immediacy and in-your-face realism, but with a story that feels so contrived and predestined that the bumpy, raw visuals can't deliver the impact that story should provide. "The Sacred Family" suffers from the same stylistic pitfall which appears to be plaguing a great number of off-the-cuff digital features: an obnoxious proximity to the action which leads to confusion, nasty editing and far, far too many messy close-ups that make us wish we could push the actors away. Campos can't seem to take those precious backward steps and let the cozy, domestic beach-house provide some the contrast, development and hypocrisy that it could have beautifully encapsulated. He never seems to zoom out far enough to even begin considering artistic decision about framing, blocking and angle.

A lot of poor "natural" lighting also gives us frequent splotchy gray patches in the dark scenes that are distracting and a bit off-putting.

The reason I'm not giving this film a terrible rating even though I'm sounding so negative is that the essential story only fails to certain degree: it still holds mild interest and believability. Also, a couple of the performances shine through. Patricia Lopez is a natural as Sofia, a woman who thrives on pleasure and attention (she's not just a compulsive flirt, but a drama student who somewhat unwittingly channels her sensuality into her mediocre performances). Sergio Hernandez, who plays the father, exudes just the right level of below-the-surface creepiness as a man whose ego and selfishness make him vulnerable.

Title: American Fork
Director: Chris Bowman
Country: USA
Score: 7.5
"American Fork" is an indie comedy that celebrates a semi-sympathetic loser in the tradition of "Napoleon Dynamite," although a fairer comparison might be a cross between Christopher Guest and Todd Solondz.

Tracy Orbison (Hubbel Palmer) is an overweight grocery store employee with few friends and a dysfunctional family. He keeps a journal of poetry and maintains a proud aloofness despite his unenviable lot. He becomes interested in acting and enters into the tutelage of washed-up B-actor Truman Hope (William Baldwin is cast as just the man for the role) at a community college night school. After Hope backstabs him outside a lecture by Rutger Hauer (which was a little touch probably funny to the director, myself, Katie and only five other people in the world), Orbison ends his celebrity worship. His problems only escalate when Hope starts dating his homey sister and a coworker draws him into a robbery. Oh, and he gets arrested for sexually soliciting a minor.

Yeah, "American Fork" may be a bit of an acquired taste for those who like their comedy to be gentle and guilt-free. Luckily, Bowman does seem to care about his quirky cast, even if he can't help highlighting their worst traits. I really appreciated his essential disunity, the way his character don't instantly bond and work together. Just because two people are wallowing in misery doesn't mean their flaws are somehow compatible, and Bowman bravely shows how these people use, abuse and hurt each other either casually or just to make themselves feel better. It dips into cruelty occasionally, but a lot of the humor is so genuine anyway that it manages to let us vent some of the sadness.

There isn't a whole lot that struck me as patently new about "American Fork," although it does a good job at translating the dark, everyday tragedies of life into comedy and it features a compelling obese protagonist (quite a rarity in American films of any type). Though I haven't seen it, I imagine this film is a lot more mature than "Shallow Hal" and one could even read the brutal honesty as a twisted form of sensitivity in the way it commiserates with our hero.

The cinematography is not special, but the art design is fitting: Tracy's sister's room is so painfully pre-adolescent while the grocery store and drama classroom have just the right level of depressing flavorless realism. The editing shows wise comic timing, with plenty of cuts to quiet, lonely moments that got sympathetic chuckles from the audience. Perhaps the most technically accomplished part was the hectic, scrapbook intro that navigates through a galaxy of American materialist excess (including a fork).

Title: Big Dreams Little Tokyo
Director: Dave Boyle
Country: USA
Score: 6.0
This ultra-low-budget indie features a quirky protagonist whose good posture, pencil-thin physique and linguistic wizardry provide almost a complete inversion of "American Fork's" Tracy Orbison. Boyd (played by the director, Dave Boyle), is a young American entrepreneur who speaks flawless Japanese, a skill he seems unable to leverage into a career as a businessman, writer, personal teacher or translator. His roommate, Jerome, has a likewise idiosyncratic ambition: to become a sumo wrestler by eating vast amounts of food.

There is not a lot of conflict or opposition in "Big Dreams Little Tokyo," though it hardly seems a problem. The plot follows Boyd's many attempts at achieving the businessman status that his one-man "Tiger Industries" business cards simply, but incessantly, proclaim. He doesn't really need the money since his rich father is content to cover Boyd's rent while he gets settled and tries to find a "real job." However, Boyd desire to be successfully self-employed for his own principled personal satisfaction makes him endearingly quixotic.

Dave Boyle has a certain amount of brilliance to the character humor of his highly-driven, counter-slacker hero. Jerome, however, is too obvious of a foil and the sumo wrestling dream is less exciting, especially since it relies on a series of inevitable eating-large-quantities-of-food-for-laughs segments. Mai, a Japanese nurse who speaks extremely passable English yet decides to take lessons with Boyd anyway, also seems a little forced as the love interest. She's a bit too naive and free of complexity to add much to the dynamics, but she's also irresistibly cute and disarming.

The budget constraints and inexperience of the crew will not go unnoticed by viewers, but I sensed it in a way that only amplified my admiration for how they got the film made, and with plenty of personality and dignity to boot. A lot of the sets are undressed and the editing is a bit crude and staccato, but the composition and polish show effort and commitment. This is not a film to see on its technical merits, but it is also not so poorly made that it interferes with the oddball trans-cultural humor. Netflix it sometime when you're in the mood for something light, goofy and weirdly cute.

Monday, November 19, 2007

SLIFF 2007: Thoughts on Genre and Marketing

More reviews from the St. Louis International Film Festival 2007 to come, but first a rambling shameless rant about festival ads, promos, genres and selections.

One thing that became very tiresome at the St. Louis International Film Festival 2007 was sitting through the same introductory speeches, ads and festival promos more than twenty times. Sitting through AT&T’s “Hollyorkizona South Ameriland” commercial for the first film made appreciate that they had sponsored the festival, but hearing it for what must sum up to six years of wasted time made me rue the entire telecommunication industry. Even Atomfilm’s amusingly bizarre collection of fake teaser-trailers got very, very old. Granted, OCD fanatical marathon viewers like me are not the target audience for Midwestern film festivals, but between Katie and myself we did spend several hundred dollars supporting this material.

As for the festival promos, Cinema St. Louis wisely commissioned a set of three to help reduce the repetition. Coolfire Media provided the spots and they showed quite a bit of polish, though more so in the animation than the C-quality acting. What irked me most, however, was that two of the three promos emphasized genre: a mad scientist mixing colored liquids with genre labels and a speed-dating service where actors were dressed in genre stereotypes. However, the idea that science-fiction, horror, romantic comedy, action, western, noir or even mystery (many of them explicitly mentioned in the ads) were well-represented is extremely misleading.

I broke down the films I saw this year by loose genresque categories:

Art House Drama: 12
Dark Comedy: 5
Shorts: 3 (one set being entirely dark comedies)
Thriller: 2 (The Method, The Walker)
Documentary: 2
Light Comedy: 1 (Big Dreams, Little Tokyo)
Romance: 1 (Emma’s Bliss)
Sci-fi, Horror, Action, Mystery, Noir, Western: 0

For ‘romance’ I imposed the rule that it had to ultimately be a positive, non-dysfunctional relationship (for which even “Emma’s Bliss” is a definite stretch). Films that were mysterious, but ultimately ambiguous, were counted as ‘art house drama’ and not ‘mystery.’

Admittedly, there is bound to be plenty of bias in the types of films that I personally selected to see, but I did go into a couple of screenings blind (little or no prior research). I kept my promise to see at least one set of shorts, one documentary and one film from a country whose cinema I’d never before experienced (Chili and Croatia). As a general rule, whenever I catch even a whiff of cult potential or genre-blending anarchy, I usually bite. I say all this because despite eccentric personal preferences, I tried to make my picks as opened-minded and horizon-expanding as possible.

There was one movie in the festival which might be classifiable as horror, but which I didn’t see: “Ghost Image.” The conspicuous absence of the midnight movie features (and the former cult sidebar), always one of the most popular and lively events, certainly hurt the sci-fi/horror offerings. It used to provide a nice, adreline-pumping break in the flow of lugubrious, downbeat dramas and it pulled in a type of viewer not often seen at regular festival screenings: young, casually-dressed unwashed masses who are often a long way off from employment, let alone retirement (such as myself, last year).

Frankly, nothing I’ve said is surprising to anyone who has been to any film festival ever. The phrase “festival film” (often used derogatorily) even carries with it certain connotations about the genre, theme and production value you can expect. Still, there is no shortage of aspiring independent and foreign genre filmmakers out there. One could certainly do a sidebar on, say, indie heist films, future-sports, post-apocalyptic adventures, zombie invasions or any other popular indulgence into crime and fantasy.

The problem is that none of those themes carries much prestige or international legitimacy (having fun rarely does), though I would argue that they can [occasionally] be just as thematically complex, emotionally resonant and culturally relevant.

Instead we get politically correct sidebars like “global lens” and “interfaith” that sound strangely vague and bland, but are unassailable in terms of asking for donations, sponsorship or NEA funding. Then we have things like the “Midwest Music Silent Film Sidebar” which has that local grassroots flavor, but generates about as much excitement as a potluck square-dance. It’s unfortunate that Hollywood markets solely to a homogenous ahistorical, apolitical youth market, but should our festivals be aimed exclusively at retired doctoral aesthetes? Where’s the global perspective in targeting such narrow demographics?

I’m not saying we can’t have our usual array of depressing existential crises, loveless labyrinths of infidelity and preachy odes to multiculturalism (seriously, I love those films too), but every once in a while I need to see a spaceship fire a laser-shotgun into an undead dragon. This is especially true if I have to sit through a couple dozen repeats of a promo telling me that genre variety is the reason I should be excited about film festivals.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 2

It’s time I started playing catch-up and reviewed the St. Louis International Film Festival movies I’ve been packing in this week. I’ve been seeing at least two a day after work, which has been fun, but doesn’t leave a lot of time to write if you are also fond of eating and sleeping. There have been at least four excellent films so far, but I’ve also seen my first batch of duds. I’ll be bringing you reviews of them all!

While overall it has still been a great year, this week saw a parade of disappointments with the upcoming Peter Greenaway screening. First the distributors wouldn’t cough up his latest film, “Nightwatching,” so Cinema St. Louis had to rely on an older, but still brilliant, “Drowning by Numbers.” Then Peter Greenaway canceled his trip to St. Louis, prompting the festival to withdraw his lifetime achievement award. In the scramble to find someone locally to present the film, my name came up. I was overwhelmingly excited by the prospect and set about doing some research and outlining a draft. Then I found out shortly after that RD Zurick had been given the job instead. Disappointed as I am, I still thank Brett Smith and Prof. Charles Barr for thinking of me and suggesting my name.

I think at this point, I will probably skip out on “Drowning by Numbers” and see the Israeli film “Aviva, My Love” instead. However, when I’ve finished covering SLIFF 2007, I’ll dig up a paper I wrote on my favorite Greenaway film, “A Zed and Two Noughts,” and post that as a tribute to the great director.

Anyways, on to the reviews from Nov 11-12:

Title: Getting Home
Director: Yang Zhang
Country: USA
Score: 8.5
Zhao (Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan) is kicking back some midday drinks with his friend (as usual), when his buddy up and dies. Despite his lack of money or friends, Zhao determines to bury the corpse to its home town, about 1000 miles away across China. Yes, it does sound a lot like a Chinese cross-country road-trip version of “Weekend at Bernie’s,” but the film is actually quite touching and frequently hilarious. I was told later that this has been one of the most popular films at the festival and a second screening has been secured (Sunday, Nov 18th at 8:30 at the Plaza Frontenac).

The film is quite good-natured and draws the audience into sympathy with Zhao who is honest, unpretentious and friendly. The attention to character and personality pays off, since it allows the audience to enjoy morbid, deadpan and absurdist humor from jokes that might have felt cheap otherwise. Much of the laughs come from irreverent visual gags, like Zhao strapping the body inside a giant monster-truck tire and rolling him along the road or lashing the corpse to a scarecrow pole to keep it inconspicuous at night.

The humor is not particularly sophisticated, but it is pinpricks us with unexpected jolts and jostles us out of complacency with sudden shifts. The pace shows delicate balance when it comes to maintaining the comedy, quirkiness and drama, but it is Zhao Benshan’s performance that aids immeasurably in selling the material. His gentle, hangdog face, steady resolve and impeccable timing bolster the film through the vast stretches where he is the only character onscreen. His dalliances with friendship, love, criminality and suicide round out his development and provide episodes that keep the plot interesting and the jokes fresh.

Title: The Method
Director: Marcelo Piñeyro
Country: Argentina/Spain
Score: 6.0
Eight applicants (one of which is a mole) at a multinational corporation compete for a cushy executive position in this corporate psychological drama. The film is set in a near-future world where riots against the IMF are tearing apart the street while the rich vie to get richer in the glossy conference rooms of towering skyscrapers. The brilliant opening sequence features some gorgeous triple-split-screen work (one of my favorite techniques best used in 2003’s “Doppelganger”), but it is all too short; after the initial credits it is replaced with traditional camerawork in the single-room setting where most of the film takes place.

The bulk of “The Method” involves the eight applicants gradually learning how diabolical the so-called “Grönholm method” of psychological testing, screening and selection can be. Pitted against each other in direct competition, the initial veneers of politeness and civility quickly crumble. The men and women are voted out one-by-one after completing various tasks involving problem-solving, peer-evaluation, verbal play and trust. One of the more obvious examples is an exercise where each person must defend why they should be allowed to stay in a bomb shelter in case of a nuclear attack and a shortage of supplies.

“The Method” is a tense, harsh indictment of office politics, corporate greed and the dehumanization that comes with modernization. It combines over-the-top with all-too-real. I loved the way that the verbal exchanges escalate from neutral comments through banter into stinging insults. However the balance only lasts for the first half of the film and, after a striking early peak, Piñeyro doesn’t is unable to keep ratcheting up the intensity. With a handful of cast members yet to eliminate he devolves into repetition, ill-suited sexual tension and an excess of verbal and physical extremism that loose any sense of realism or truth. He also breaks from his claustrophobic one-room premise in a misguided attempt to expand the space, fit in some sex, and isolate the characters into pairs. Unfortunately it also allows the tension, momentum and discomfort to leak out. The final act coasts on rail, too contrived and predictable to be exciting or shocking.

Piñeyro was clearly influenced by elimination-based reality TV and the trendy mix of melodrama and sex appeal on soap operas. Both sources tend to hold back the potential of the film, causing the structure and character dynamics to sit comfortably in a rut. The similarities to films like “The Game” (1997) or any of the “Ten Little Indian” adaptations only reminded me of more successfully variations on the every-man-for-himself theme.

Title: No Regret
Director: Hee-il Leesong
Country: South Korea
Score: 3.0
“No Regret” has thus-far been the clear low-point in my SLIFF viewing experience. As a big fan of South Korean films in general, I gave it a chance despite the dull-sounding premise. I quickly ended up regretting my decision.

The plot revolves around an unrequited gay romance between petulant orphan Lee Su-min and obsessive stalker/businessman Song Jae-min. Despite plenty of opportunity for insights into the inherent cultural and class conflicts, “No Regret” is content to simply mire in cycles of romantic attack and retreat. Neither character is likable, interesting, original or logical and their emotions are such broad, inconsistent mishmashes that one has no idea what they are thinking or why they do or say anything. The acting is not really bad, but lacking material to sink their teeth into they fumble and flounder.

The screenplay is bland and lifeless, borrowing unenthusiastically from other art-films about mismatched lovers and stormy homosexual relationships. There are a few conversations which hunt for new thoughts and emotional expressions, but there are no real kills. After spending about an hour too long trapped in the stagnant life of Su-min, the film veers into thriller territory. The pointless drama, trauma and violence feels like a last-ditch attempt to get onto Tartan’s “Asian Extreme” DVD distribution label.

I’ve saved the worst for last. Though the film is bad enough based on writing, story and pacing alone the real mess is the craftsmanship. A good low-budget filmmaker can transcend lack of materials, but Hee-il Leesong is, instead, crushed under the weight of his technical incompetence. There is no lighting to speak of and most of the film is spent trying to divine the meaning of shapeless silhouettes blurring across black patches. Arbitrary natural light from ugly phosphorescent bulbs occasionally reveals the emptiness of the sets, the inexpressively of the minor cast and the banality of the composition. Talent, training, money and help from an experienced crew or sorely needed to save this visual trough.

Sadly, a film that is this bad for so long allows the mind of a film reviewer to wander and I begin planning ways to trash the film when I sat down to write. Here is the most succinct one: If I had a dollar for every time I yawned while watching “No Regret,” I could have bought a better digital camera than the one it was shot with.

Title: Waiter
Director: Alex van Warmerdam
Country: Netherlands
Score: 6.5
“Waiter” is a dramedy about a fictional character (the waiter) who interacts with the writer who created him. While I do enjoy this premise, the festival is featuring it in three movies, and it has already been done adequately in the surprisingly good “Stranger than Fiction” (2006). Warmerdam has very little to add, except that he improves upon the ending and ultimately displays a different perspective on the powers of creation and authorship.

Edgar, the waiter, is depressed and depressing. He leads an empty, thankless life serving rude upper-crust snobs. He lives with a bedridden wife and maintains a whiny mistress. His next door neighbors are not just loud and cruel like regular bad neighbors, they are actually vicious mobsters. Edgar finally gets so fed up with his lot that he busts into his author’s apartment and demands a better life, or a least a few moments of bliss and love. Herman wants to write a serious modern novel and will thus tolerate very few romantic notions, though his mischievous girlfriend, Suzie, is more than willing to grant wishes. Eventually Herman invents Stella (Lyne Renee, looking sumptuous in her debut film role) to fulfill Edgar’s need for love, but life refuses to get easier.

The humor in “Waiter” comes entirely at Edgar’s expense and we spend most of the movie either trying to anticipate his next fiasco or enjoying his current abuse. Not many of the laughs are particularly well-earned, but some really work. My favorite was a scene from one the more absurd subplots, in which Edgar arrives home to find his gangster neighbors sitting in the darkness of his apartment. They introduce Makino, a Japanese assassin who “needs a place to lie low.” Guess where they had in mind? Some of the material is less inspired, like most of the straightforward restaurant pratfalls that hit all the usual jokes involved with food preparation and rude customers. The audience responded particularly well to a running joke in which Edgar role-plays with his mistress and four African American spear-hunters.

None of the performances really stand out and not enough is done to capitalize on the fact/fiction author/character possibilities. Herman in particular comes off as a loud, mean and untalented author. Whether his creations are intentionally supposed to be mediocre workmanship is hard to gauge, but since the audience is stuck viewing them for 90% of the film isn’t a wise decision even if it is the point. I did appreciate the ending, with three linked twists in rapid succession that smartly, though bitterly, beat out the conclusion to “Stranger than Fiction.”

Title: Ploy
Director: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Country: Thailand
Score: 8.0
Ratanaruang is becoming somewhat of a perennial SLIFF fixture, where I think pretty much all of his films have played over the years. Scheduling issues (on the festival’s side) prevented me from seeing “Invisible Waves” (2006) last year, but I had seen “Last Life in the Universe” (2003) a couple of times and was looking forward to “Ploy,” his latest.

Like his previous films, this one has an easy-going pace and a thick moodiness in which a handful of sharply-drawn character float about. Ploy is the name of a young girl who enters into the lives of Wit and Dang, a withdrawn Thai couple who have recently returned from America for a funeral. Wit meets Ploy in the hotel bar where she is waiting for her mom and invites her back to his room to freshen up. His wife, already reeling down the path of jealously after finding a woman’s name and number on a scrap of paper in Wit’s jacket, imagines that the interloper is a romantic rival brazenly trotted out right in front of her. Arguments, misinterpretations and disturbingly realistic nightmares divide the characters and pull them through ponderous emotional wormholes.

The heavy atmosphere, digital camerawork, minimalist mise-en-scene and gently intercut free-flowing story make this film a bit difficult to get into. I found that my sleep-deprived drowsiness actually helped me slip into the mood, keeping myself in the dreamlike narrative stream and presenting relaxingly simple, but strangely beautiful, compositions. The actors are all extremely confident and comfortable in their roles, showing effortless modulation of their expressions. Their words, and the silences in between, feel packed with a history only partially revealed by the film. Their realism lacks a clear agenda, and I appreciate the way that Ratanaruang refuses to tell us how we should feel about them.

Atmosphere is definitely the crux of “Ploy,” but it does not rely solely on a homogenous haze of pretty pictures and brooding silences (Tsai Ming-Liang, pay attention now). What gives the film its depth is the way that reality dissolves into dreams in a manner that is seamless and seductive to watch yet delightfully destabilizing when one tries to pin down the narrative. These ethereal intrusions don’t always have distinct transition points, but they open doorways for fears, desires and the other phantoms of imagination to enter. Then there is also emotional resonance, the warm melancholy and a few choice interjections of sensual passion. Though I am often antsy during these festival marathons, time seemed to stop for “Ploy” (in a good way) and then resume afterwards.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 1

I finally have a break in my SLIFF schedule (morning of Day 4) long enough to right up some coverage. So far the 2007 St. Louis Film Festival has been a great time and I’ve been particularly impressed by the number of directors, actors and documentary subjects in attendance. I’ll be giving short reviews of the films I’ve seen including shorts and also voicing my reactions to the various Q&A sessions.

Title: Honeydripper
Director: John Sayles
Country: USA
Score: 7.5
John Sayles is not only a well-recognized director, but he’s also a safe bet year-after-year and so I think he was a fine choice to open the festival on Thursday. If you are at all familiar with his prolific output, you’ll know exactly what to expect from this one: superb ensemble cast, small-town regional feel, regular people who talk in with a layback ease, class and race issues, etc.

“Honeydripper” is about an African America family trying to keep their Alabama bar (a rundown live-music venue called The Honeydripper) above water despite a failure to tap into youth culture or wealth. A bit predictably, they stage an all-out concert with a famous musician, Guitar Sam, to raise enough dough. The twist comes when he fails to show up and drifter with a new-fangled electric guitar gismo steps in to fill his gig.

While this film is on par with Sayles consistent seal of quality, it never rises into greatness. The acting and dialogue are strong (as usual), but the familiarity of the script and the obvious trajectory of the plot arc don’t generate much excitement. There is a half-hearted attempt at magical realism that I wish would have been more pervasive, because in its current state it lies awkwardly on a single character: merely a clichéd combination of Tiresias and “the spirit of rock and roll.” The issues of class and race aren’t interrogated in much earnest, but they make up in sincerity what they lack in originality.

It was great to see Sayles in person and he had quite a cadre of cast members along with him. Sadly, the audience got off to a bad start with a barrage of awful questions. The most interesting parts of this session were stories from Sayles life and career, which revealed a man who has waged a grassroots war for funding and cultural diversity over a lifetime of shoestring classics. My least favorite answer was his closing comment, wherein he blamed the gluttony of wannabe indie filmmakers for the difficulty of getting financial backing. It seemed pretty sour, especially since I’ve always believed more new voices, ideas and artists can only be a positive development. As an admitted outsider, the problem in my eyes seems to be that studios don’t want to take a risk on anything new or different.

Title: The Collector
Director: Feliks Falk
Country: Poland
Score: 7.0
Lucek is a debt collector who takes far too much pleasure from his job. When we first meet him, he’s trying to seize medical equipment from a failing hospital while the machines are still hooked up to critical patients. Lucek has no friends or family, but subsists on his smugness, power lust and a loveless affair. He’s so effective at his job that even his coworkers are jealous and the police find him despicable. Surprisingly, Falk and actor Andrzej Chyra succeed in making him almost likable, since his petty need for success and societal revenge are so terribly human.

Unfortunately, the film is a bit facile in its narrative and thematic preoccupations. It doesn’t take much experience with previous variations on the plot to know that a run-in with an old flame and a nearby suicide with shake him to his foundation and cause him to rethink his deeds. What is interesting is that his redemption has its cuteness tempered by outside corruption. It soon becomes obvious that his victims are not as innocent and honest as they seemed and that his attempts to right his wrongs will not be met with gratitude. I like this type of mixed salvation more than wholesale fantasy.

Andrzej Chyra is good in the lead and the supporting cast does well in their own right although they work best as sounding boards and points of comparison for Lucek’s selfishness and single-mindedness. The film’s transitions are set to hip, dance music while Polish architecture flows past Lucek’s car. It’s a concession to style that is not so overt in the rest of the film, and shows an admirable effort to keep the pacing quick (mostly this works) in a story arc that is usually stretched into false epicness.

Title: Darius Goes West
Director: Logan Smalley
Country: USA
Score: 9.0
“Darius Goes West” is a documentary road movie that is deservedly swooping up every award it has competed for (15 at the current count). It tells the tale of Darius Weems, a teenage wheelchair-bound victim of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy who takes a trailer from Athens, Georgia to California in the hopes that MTV will custom mod his chair as part of their show, “Pimp My Ride.” Having never left his home county before, Darius and his roadcrew friends visit national landmarks and two oceans, testing the wheelchair accessibility of the country along the way.

Darius is a genuine and compelling young man, with a lot of drive, humor and intelligence. He composes raps on his trip as part of his correspondence with MTV and shows an enthusiasm for everything he encounters that seems more active and cheerful than most people who can walk and expect to live past 30. One doesn’t feel pity for Darius (he wouldn’t want you to), one feels admiration. He’s the type of guy you’d want to hang out with because he feels good about himself and makes everyone around him feel good, too.

These days, “inspirational” is almost a dirty word for me. It’s been co-opted by Hollywood, the AFI and every indie filmmaker who knows that emotions sell more tickets than talent. However, “Darius Goes West,” is inspirational in the most real and honest ways and though the camera is out of focus occasionally and the recap ending is a mess of editing, the film more than makes up for it with it with insightful inadvertent character studies, corporate indictment (without any trace or sarcasm or bitterness) and kinetic, welcoming realism.

The audience had an especially audible reaction to a segment where Darius laments that the only really dispiriting moments on the trip were when places weren’t wheelchair accessible that really should have been. Right after he speaks the line, the camera cuts to the St. Louis arches. Ouch! There really is no excuse. I think I’ll actually write an email to them and suggest they get a ramp installed.

I was amused that Darius frequently comments that no one knows who Jerry Lewis is (the leading television advocate for awareness about DMD), but that every teen watched “Pimp My Ride.” I’ve seen Jerry Lewis in several films without ever having seen or heard of the MTV show Darius loves. It sort of made me feel like a crotchety elder (at 22).

Title: The Memory Thief
Director: Gil Kaufman
Country: USA
Score: 9.0
So far this has been my favorite of the festival. Kaufman’s debut film stars Mark Webber (“Storytelling,” “Dear Wendy”) as Lukas, an aimless, overly-sensitive tollbooth operator. He starts to read “Mein Kampf” when a neo-Nazi throws it at him and later gets yelled at by a Holocaust survivor (Allan Rich) who sees the book. This starts a chain-reaction that draws Lukas into a fascination with Holocaust survivors and their testimonies. He takes a part-time job at a Holocaust archive transcribing tapes and observing interviews. Far from a healthy attempt to acknowledge, explore and understand the past, Lukas is in a freefall of pathological obsession and over-identification.

Comparisons to “Taxi Driver” are inevitable with this claustrophobic character study. The gradual curvature of Lukas’s descent into madness is perfect and provides handholds for dozens of tough themes and deep debates to grapple. His friendship with Mira, the attractive daughter of a Holocaust survivor he longs to interview, provides a level-headed alternative to Lukas, but the director is smart enough to give them both lines that sound morally and ethically correct (and natural) so our loyalties bounce around constantly. Lukas’s motivations and intentions are beautifully blurred into a complicated complex of victim, survivor, violator and savior all without having lived through the historical events or even being Jewish.

Gil Kaufman has discovered a cavern dark with moral grays and he intelligently shines a flashlight on endless miles of controversial catacombs. Though he doesn’t illuminate a way out, the mental spelunking should be required exercise for anyone interested in fictional treatments of global tragedy.

I was truly surprised that Gil Kaufman was actually there for a Q&A after the film, because it must take a lot of bravery to deal with the possible negative reactions. Indeed, one Holocaust survivor in the audience had issues with a thinly-disguised surrogate for Steven Spielberg (not very sympathetically portrayed) and even I’m not sure how I feel about the director using actual interview footage (conducted by himself with full permission). I look forward to seeing more from Kaufman in the future.

Title: Hear and Now
Director: Irene Taylor Brodsky
Country: USA
Score: 6.5
Irene Brodsky grew up with parents who were born deaf. At the age of approximately 65, they both decided to get cochlear implants. Brodsky films their decision, the surgery and the aftermath.

The compelling human interesting story packed a fairly full auditorium despite two screenings (most of the films only have one). I had to admit that I was curious how the couple would react to their first sounds and how it would change their lives. It is enormously endearing to see their first experiments: listening to footsteps and flushing toilets, going through the carwash twice in one day just to hear the sounds and noting that geese make the most annoying of all noises.

This is story about Brodsky’s parents, and she admitted this right away in the following QA. Considering that her parents are fascinating, creative, witty and loving, they certainly make a watchable pair that won instant audience sympathy. Sadly, the film fails to do anything more than simply present these two likable senior citizens, although early in the film there are some windows into the life of a deaf family. The audience doesn’t really gain any insight into the surgery, the debate in the deaf community, the effort and progress of mastering hearing or the perspectives of others who have undergone the surgery in different circumstances.

The questions from the audience were perhaps more revealing than the film itself and helped to voice some of my problems with the film and the events themselves. One hearing-impaired audience member was rightly outraged that the film was not fully subtitled meaning that he did not understand quite a bit of it. As a big proponent of subtitling all films, I had to agree with his shock and wondered why Brodsky insisted that it was an “artistic decision” to release an untitled version.

More disturbing, was the lack of post-operative surgery and speech-recognition training that was brought up by several questioners. How could an informed director who has made four films on deafness, not provide her parents with the care and aid universally acknowledged as requisite by medical professionals? I also felt uncomfortable with Brodsky parading her parents onstage “for questions” (mediated through a sign-language translator) and then misinterpreting every question as being directed at her own life and her career.

Title: Crossroads (1928)
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
Country: Japan
Score: 5.5
Kinugasa’s restored 1928 film, is one of the first great works out of Japan. It tells of a dirt poor brother and sister who live in the pleasure district slums of Tokyo. The brother falls helplessly in love with a snide geisha who disdains him, shrugging him off for more amusing company and driving him to duel a rival lover far above his skill level. Blinded by ashes in his eyes, not to mention jealous rage, the young ronin attacks the rival and thinks he kills him, driving him to fear and guilt that are actually unfounded. He flees to the protection of his sister, a diligent seamstress who would do anything to protect him. While her brother moans in pain and loss (not realizing his blindness is temporary), the unfortunate girl fends off a fake police constable, eventually agreeing to sleep with him if he agrees not to arrest her brother. The decision ends in a real murder, completing the tragic inevitability of their sorry lot.

Kinugasa masterfully assays the possibility of pain, suffering and sadness in the Japanese lower class. His visuals are a hallucinogenic nightmare of spinning, whirling carnival games that create a macabre gaiety upon which to foreground the misery of poverty, yearning, rejection and fear. Yet the film never gets deep inside the heads of its characters and one feels like they exist simply to have fate and society conspire against them. The imagery becomes quickly repetitious and film mires after only half an hour with camera positions revisited too often and the story held back for the big dramatic finale.

Musical Accompaniment:
Live music was provided by a team of avant-garde players that mixed classical Japanese instruments and modern polyrhythmic dissonance. Not really my type of thing, but it did fit the onscreen action and gave the whole film a somewhat ghostly, unnatural resonance.

Title: Water-Themed Shorts
Directors: Various
Country: USA
Score: 3.0
Before “Crossroads” a series of seven locally-made water-themed shorts were shown:

Electric Water – A quick formalist experiment with high-contrast close-ups of ripples. Super-imposing these almost made it interesting, but mostly this was boring and not nearly structured or selective enough to be mesmerizing, which was clearly the goal.

Two Rivers – Water on statues. 50/50 documentary/meditation. Worked for about a quarter of its running time.

Meditations on Maya – Somewhat interesting formalist investigation of waterfalls and other natural phenomena mirrored into unusual, dynamic symmetries.

The Source – Water as texture and visual pattern. Great theme for an elegant quickie, but botched by lack of material and inexperienced framing.

Suds – A camera pointed out of the front window of an auto as it goes through the car wash. It says something really bad that this was my second favorite of the entire batch.

Rolling Shoals: Skipping Rocks – A handful of the shots of rocks being skipped on water. The last one was played slower than the rest. The examples chosen were not particularly impressive and the editing was awful. I think this could have worked if it had been a single shot of an amazing rock-skip played in extreme slow motion.

Touch – Easily the best. Reverse-silhouettes of a man and women reveal videos of waves and other water movements. The effect makes the water look like it is the skin and substance of the actors. Careful timing and camera movement over the naked close-ups caused various effects and interpretations of the liquid. This film actually succeeding at being fresh, thought-provoking, beautiful and even sexy. The other filmmakers could learn a lot.

Musical Accompaniment:
The shorts were all silent, with music inflicted by an avant-gardist who was allowed to design his own “water-based instruments.” I was so excited for this to be cool, but it was embarrassingly bad and only marred the films.

Title: Jamie Travis Shorts
Directors: Jamie Travis (duh)
Country: Canada
Score: 8.5
This was a “retrospective” of shorts by 28-year-old Canadian Jamie Travis. His darkly surreal films are moody celebrations of graphic design, kitschy formalism and retro revisionism. I found all of them to be funny, delightful and, above-all, aesthetically astute. They have the dour suburban malaise of a Wes Anderson film with the unpredictable visual quirkiness of Lynch.

Patterns Trilogy – These were three films about a young couple that live in the same apartment building. The first two parts take the perspective of the girl and boy respectively and the final part brings them together in climactic musical sequence. The focus is often on visual patterns, but the motif is extended into the habits of daily life, the clichés of romance and the cycle of emotional reactions. The use of color, texture, pattern, design, framing and split-screen was fairly brilliant, creating a satisfying whole that wallows in everything from glossy 60’s interior design to the fatalistic rollercoaster of puppy love.

The Saddest Boy in the World – From the same country that brought you “The Saddest Music in the World” comes this miniature biography of a green-eyed tyke in an all-green world. The boy is a stirring, endearing sad-sack who quietly drowns in a pool of his own neglected tears. In the opening shots he prepares to hang himself, while flashbacks inform us of his depressing life. He is friendless and the victim of endless misfortunes (including being kidnapped and returned after no money was paid), filmed with irresistible deadpan humor and the warped perspective of youth. The combination of comedy, craft and bizarreness made this an easy pick for my favorite short in the festival so far.

Why the Anderson Children Didn’t Come to Dinner – Three small children and a mother form the core of the most dysfunctional family of all time. They are all reserved, compulsive eccentrics who can eek no joy from their sterile lives. The mother cooks psychotic quantities of unappetizing food and reacts violently to the presence of brown eggs in her cartons of whites. The children carry out unusual behavioral disorders that are finally revealed as odd escape routes into a realm of fantasy further removed from reality than even their current circumstances.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Dimension Films Announces Plan to Remake Every Horror Film Ever

Screenwriter strike leads to revolutionary 20-year plan for repackaging old horror movies.

By Margit Gluckmeister, Hollywood correspondent
November 8 2007: 8:45 AM EST

The Weinstein brothers made a startling announcement during a press event last evening, telling reporters that they had signed a $180 million dollar deal to remake “every horror film ever.” The news comes not long after the screenwriters guild launched a strike for higher shares of DVD, internet and future technology sales. The Weinsteins said that Dimension Films, the genre subsidiary of The Weinstein Company, no longer has any plans to rehire writers.

Michio Hayasaki, a spokesman for the company cited sales statistic showing that Dimension has made 57% more profit on its recent remakes of “Black Christmas” and “Halloween” than any five of its original screenplays from the past three years. Audience polls showed disgust and dissatisfaction with the remakes, but ticket sales proved the recognizable titles were irresistible to young male horror enthusiasts, a demographic that is affectionately referred to as “sketchy, brain-dead gore-hounds” within Dimension.

The company was quick to mention that even sequels will get remade. The advertising campaign will be tailored to market these as both remakes-of-sequels and sequels-to-remakes depending on regional taste.

To keep the potential confusion under reigns, all new remakes will keep the original title, but add a “.2” to the end, adding a “1” for original films. For instance, a remake of the first “Leprechaun” would be titled, “Leprechaun 1.2.” When the press noted the similarity to versioning on computer software, Mr. Hayasaki acknowledged that the connection was not coincidental:

“The decision to use number versioning has tremendous support within the industry and our research division suggests it is likely to catch on with other genres as well. It leaves open an infinite space for future expansion and implies, like a patch for a computer game, that the latest version will fix all the bugs in the original while enhancing the graphics.”

When criticized about the lack of creativity in the new system, Mr. Hayasaki responded that, “Elaborate new titles, previously used to disguise sequels and remakes, only confuses audiences and muddies our attempts at branding. Also, keep in mind that we fired all our writers.”

Dimension also plans to remake existing remakes. The titles will simply add another decimal point and a new series of numbers.

Mr. Hayasaki continued, noting that the computer model fit well with the industry’s greater emphasis on technology. Advancements in CG have made screenplays irrelevant, since studies have shown that dialogue distracts audiences from simulated acts of bloodshed, mayhem and torture. All absolutely necessary dialog would be borrowed from the original films, improvised or digitally inserted by a context-insensitive speech generator. To prepare against rare emergencies in which writer intervention is required, Harvey Weinstein plans to learn how to read and write.

Other technological developments within the Weinstein Company are expected to ease the transition to remakes-only. “Actor Frameworks” have been designed in which original films have the faces edited out. It is then extremely fast and cheap to record a handful of expressions from Hollywood’s hottest young stars and then digitally insert them into the film. The Weinsteins have assured the screen actors guild that they will still be able to draw salaries, “for the nude scenes if nothing else.”

Similar techniques will allow programmers to add extra blood to old movies, patching up inadequately gory scenes presumably left dry due to budget constraints, censorship or poor directing. Already slated for makeovers are such film as “Frankenstein,” “The Innocents,” and “The Others.” When questioned about how blood would be added to scenes without violence, the spokesperson was unfazed, “It can drip from the ceiling. It can stain their clothing. It can pool on the ground or in the glasses they drink from. And who cares where it comes from? It we feel like explaining it, we’ll mute out the dialog and have them spray it from their mouths where they used to talk, talk, talk.”

Mr. Hayasaki explained that interns will also sit through Dimension’s existing collection and press a button whenever the film is boring or redundant. These stretches can then be edited out without recourse to other human staff.

In response to concerns about the continuity, Mr. Hayasaki has this to say, “We think audiences will appreciate the faster pacing and increased dynamism. The jump cuts we are creating will give the film an edgier, attention-grabbing feel. If you look at the best movies out right now, you’ll see that lack of continuity is getting really trendy.”

The spokesperson dismissed concerns about artistic sanctity, claiming he didn’t understand the question.

Pressed for details about upcoming titles, Mr. Hayasaki was reluctant to reveal more details than “all horror movies ever.” However he did drop hints that audiences could look forward to an R-rated version of “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy” and a ‘hybrid remake’ of “Silence of the Lambs” with “Child’s Play.” Meanwhile, Tara Reid has signed a contract for a record-setting 2,800 parts as the title characters in the upcoming “The Birds 1.2.”

Reid spoke of the casting coup in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly: “I’m really excited for the parts and I think it goes to show how unuseful the screenwriters really are. I wrote, well… dictated, my lines by myself. I mean, who really needs to pay a book nerd to fill a sceneplay with ‘CAW-aw caw-aw caw-aw’?”

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Review of My Twentieth Century

In 1990 Ildikó Enyedi made a Hungarian film about identical twins called “My Twentieth Century.” It played on two theaters in the US (at film festivals) and received its only theatrical release (limited) in the Czech Republic. Vincent Canby gave it a rave review in the New York Times and listed it in his top 10 for the year. Fox Lorber bought the rights and put out a limited VHS run. By 1992 the film was forgotten and it has languished in obscurity ever since

When I was in high school, I watched some Fox Lorber video that included a trailer for “My Twentieth Century.” I no longer recall what movie I was actually seeing, but somehow every image of the intriguing trailer stayed with me over the intervening years. Perhaps my total obsession with movies about twins and doppelgangers (oh, upcoming list idea!) influenced its strange power over me. I recently bought the VHS on eBay and watched it (after receiving two broken copies and eventually having Katie repair one) and found that it fulfilled my every overgrown expectation.

Anya (Dorota Segda) dies soon after giving birth to twins Dora (Dorota Segda) and Lili (Dorota Segda). As shivering Budapest orphans, they sell matches to pedestrians, are visited by a dream-animal and are separated by a pair of silent gamblers who appear only in a single scene. Fate contrives to reunite them at the turn of the century, on board the Orient Express. Though the sisters are now totally different (Dora is a rich, sexually-liberated sensualist while Lili is a reserved feminist anarchist) they fall in love with the same man, Z (Oleg Yankovsky). They remain unaware of each other, and he of their duality, until the films beautiful, ambiguous finale.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference in the film’s approach to cinema is its staggering narrative freedom. Director Enyedi, who also wrote the screenplay, rushes headlong through time and space, yet always has time for humorous, mesmerizing and provocative digressions. A Greek chorus of stars giggle and gossip about the terrestrial events, a lab dog escapes ecstatically elludes his experimentors on new years eve 1900, a trip to the zoo uncovers a monkey who tells of his capture, and Otto Wittgenstein shows up to propound his theory that all women are “either mothers or whores” (he gets soundly booed by his audience of suffragettes).

Most conspicuous are the vignettes that bookend the film, focusing on Thomas Edison. In 1880, Edison is participating in a dazzling light show to demonstrate the marvel of electricity, complete with a marching band wearing helmets plumed by radiant light-bulbs. Yet the inventor looks up at the stars with sadness, perhaps at the failure of his contraption to rival the wonder of the night sky. The stars twinkle and twitter to each other, noticing his melancholy but becoming distracted. “Look over there, in Europe!” “Where?” “In Budapest!” and there, indeed, we see the twins born. Twenty years later, as the film closes, the girls are setting loose messenger pigeons while Edison is unveiling his global radiotelegraph.

Like one of my other favorite films, “A Zed and Two Noughts” (1985), twins are used as a chance to employ unusual structural symmetries. Not only do Edison cameos form a framing pair, so does the appearance of a friendly mule. The system is set up in the birth scene, where their mother holds the sisters side-by-side and their names materialize overhead. Though coincidence keeps them apart for much of the film, Enyedi crosscuts them into mirrored positions and situations, finally reuniting them in a network of actual mirrors.

The film is, as one would expect, surreal and ethereal. It’s also quite confusing at times, but one hardly feels troubled by the uncertainty, symbolism and semi-randomness. It’s clear from the start that Enyedi is having too much fun, covering too much ground and bouncing around too many ideas to catch her breath, let alone to bother much with continuity. Her film captures the spirit of the age, with the impetus of invention, social upheaval and personal freedom. Who cares if it’s accurate: goggle-eyed spectators state hilarious misconceptions, quack sociologists shout silly pseudo-science and Enyedi herself suggests magical explanations where facts are too boring or too slow to serve her purposes. Even Edison seems to wistfully sense that his technological wonders and scientific know-how are a move in the wrong direction; a fanciful delight that illuminates reality at the cost of imagination.

Enyeda casual, encompassing brew of realistic, fantastic and mystic elements creates a modernist fairy tale where twins are divided and reunited, animals speak and cavort and countries like Austria and Romania are just “places that Shakespeare made up.” Enyedi’s tone might be playful, but her message is a clear celebration of feminist potential. Dorota Segda is marvelous in her triple role, and really communicates the wonder and happiness of women exploring the ever-widening possibilities of intellectual, political and sexual life.

Though Dora would seem initially unsympathetic (her inner monologue considers and dismisses men as amusing, occasionally attractive, trifles), her mixture of carefree pleasure and cynical savvy come out as bold, witty and enticing. Meanwhile, Lili has naivity and warmth to spare with political convictions that can get her to light a bomb and a humanist philosophy that prevents her from throwing it. A casual reading might spot shadows of Wittgenstein’s mother/whore dichotomy, but any in-depth experience of the film only shatters his simplistic theory into brilliantly multi-faceted crystals.

Visually, the film looks like almost no other, due in large part to the unusual lighting. It is shot in black and white on starry street corners, rumbling sleeper cars, darkened love nests and even a hall of mirrors within a labyrinth of black velvet and bare bulbs. It has all the darkness of a classic noir, but it isn’t used for harsh shadows and concealed killers. Rather, it serves as a backdrop for flaring lights, refracted steam and sudden close-ups.

There is a visual pattern of soft white lights caught in hazy blacks. Early on there is a camera shot of the moon, made to bounce on the bottom of the frame by carefully bobbing the camera. Edison’s lights, the ever-watchful stars, snowflakes on a Christmas Eve, matchsticks on a bitter night, and fuses on an iron bomb all help to polka-dot the compositions in high-contrast. The emphasis on things that glow without enlightening, people that recede and emerge from shadows and identities that are shrouded in both literal and metaphoric darkness, give the film an enigmatic, secretive feel.

Films like this tap into all sorts of inner spaces and I’m not surprised that it inspired my curiosity across a third of my life. Half the time I wasn’t sure whether I should try and crack the layers of symbolism, search for coded messages, or simply be seduced by the visuals and freeform narrative flow. I’m awfully glad I now own this film, because I’ll be watching it many, many times.

Walrus Rating: 9

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Gearing up for SLIFF 2007

Well, SLIFF (The St. Louis International Film Festival) is coming up next week and I’m getting psyched up. For you St. Louis natives, here is some information: it runs from Nov 8th (Thurs) to Nov 18th (Sun) and has more than 70 features, 30 documentaries and what seems like 100+ shorts.

You can find more information here:

And the full schedule here:

I’ve read over all the descriptions of the film and done a bit of research. While excited, I do have some reservations as there seems to be fewer films, less big-name (amongst festival faves) and not many exciting premiers. I made snarky comments to friends after this year’s Venice Film Festival booked an unprecedented number of English language films, but now I have to admit that SLIFF is doing the same thing and, to be honest, many of the most interesting films are US features.

The most exciting special events include a screening/QA with John Sayles on the 8th and Peter Greenaway (probably my favorite living director) on the 18th. Sadly they are showing “Drowning by Numbers” for Greenaway, which I’ve already seen, rather than “Nightwatching” (2007) his first feature film in eight years. I’m also looking forward to the retrospective of “Crossroads” (1928) by Teinosuke Kinugasa, but I really wish they could have gotten “A Page of Madness” instead, which I hear is also touring with a new print. At least it will probably hit DVD within a year.

Cannes Jury prize-winner “Persepolis” (2007) is at the top of my agenda for regular features and there are quite a few others on my high priority list. I’m going to stick with my usual plan of aiming for variety and I intend to take in at least one shorts package (for which SLIFF is probably most famous), documentary and retrospective.

Here’s my tentative agenda. I probably won’t make it to everything on the list, but I’ll see as many as I reasonably can and probably a few that are unreasonable. I hope to see some of you there or at least politely and unobtrusively share the theater with you while timidly keeping to myself.

7:00 Honeydipper (QA with Sayles)

4:30 The Collector
7:00 Grace is Gone
9:30 Low and Behold

12:30 Darius Goes West
2:30 The Memory Thief
4:30 Hear and Now
7:00 Crossroads OR Lovely by Surprise
9:30 Jamie Travis Shorts

2:00 We Are Together
4:30 Getting Home
7:15 The Method OR Banished
9:45 No Regret

5:00 The Waiter
7:15 The Ploy
9:45 Music Shorts

5:00 The Sacred Family
7:00 OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
9:30 Big Dreams Little Tokyo

7:00 Juno
9:30 Animated Shorts

7:00 Rainbow Song
9:30 The Savages OR Fresh Air

4:45 Beauty in Trouble
7:15 Emma’s Bliss
9:30 Manual of Love

12:30 21st Century Shorts
5:30 Tuya’s Marriage (2007 Golden Bear)
7:00 Persepolis (2007 Cannes Jury)
9:30 The Walker

2:30 Drowning By Numbers (Reception and QA with Greenaway)
6:00 Fine Dead Girls

Oh, and of course I'll try and post what coverage I can on the festival. I don't know about night-after updates and reviews, but we'll see if my endurance and adrenaline are up to it.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Vampire Week: Closing Thoughts

Well, vampire week has finally drawn to a close. I am now rather sick of watching vampire movies, like a bloated vampire who gorges himself on a nunnery. Actually, I’m a little tired of making vampire metaphors, too, so I’ll just cut that out. I’d like to finish with some closing thoughts, including a list of the vampire films that didn’t make it to the top 35 (in the form of short shameless rants) and a list of vampire films I didn’t get around to watching.

I was surprised that putting a seven-hour silent film with no vampires as #13 and a movie that could reasonably described as lesbian vampire porn as #17 elicited silence, but “Versus” and “Underworld” managed to draw decent controversy. I really was expecting more outcry at my preponderance for ponderous vampire “art films” than at my concessions to mainstream action fare. However, I’m glad for the discussion and alternative opinions and I’d like to send a special thanks out to all the usual suspects: Kathryn, Mad Dog, Exactly Why and Magus.

I probably wrote and stressed too much on this whole project, but moderation and perspective are not really my strong suits. An extra special thanks to my girlfriend for putting up with some late nights, clacking keyboards and a couple really awful rentals. When all is said and done, I certainly had a lot of fun, too, and I hope my readers enjoyed the results. There really are some great films in the list (though few would agree on every choice) and I’m sure there’ll be no shortage of interesting (and not so much) vampire pics in the future.

Movies that should have made the list:

There was one movie that I didn’t watch in time to make it on the list, but which would have gotten in (at #18). The film is Michael Almereyda’s “Nadja” (1994) starring Elina Lowensohn, Galaxy Craze (!), Peter Fonda and Martin Donovan and with David Lynch in a cameo role. It’s a dry, deadpan comedy in which detached NYC denizens deal with relationships and vampires (often both at once). It’s very stylized, self-conscious and understated and plays more like a Hal Hartley film than many Hartley films. The soundtrack has a nice disenchanted enchantment quality, featuring My Blood Valentine, Portishead, Spacehog and The Verve. About 70% of the B/W cinematography is excellent, while the remaining 30% is marred by a needless pixilation filter whose motivation I could never quite figure out. If you enjoy Jarmusch or, of course, Hartley, you’ll like this one as well.

And now for the list beyond 35, and the neglected movies that didn’t even get watched. This should help alienate the few people who enjoyed the list so far, but the advantage of writing in the darker corners of the internet is that there are less people tracing my IP address and beating me up for lunch money (which is what I still imagine internet predators do).

The rest of the vampire list (in roughly descending order):
Note: I left out most sequels to movies in the top 35, because I despise the sequel concept so greatly.

Interview with a Vampire – I hated this movie when I first saw it, but it’s really not that bad (mostly just overrated). Kind of makes you feel bad for Anne Rice that nobody can make a decent film from her work. I could describe the plot, but every person on the face of the world has already set through it and besides, it more interesting for its themes than its content or execution.

Immortality – Jude Law plays a vampire who feeds off love (which sounds like an autobiography)… and also blood. Considering all the hype around his brief nudity even I was hoping to see more skin than this delivered.

Lifeforce – Now here’s a movie that delivers on its promises. It’s about space vampires, with copious amounts of special effects and breasts. If you haven’t decided to see this movie yet, because you are waiting for me to describe the cinematography, script and acting… then this movie is not for you.

From Dusk Till Dawn – This director/writer collaboration between Tarantino and Rodriguez, respectively, has an interesting premise: the first half is a post-heist road trip following criminals (George Clooney and Tarantino) fleeing towards the Mexican border while the second half is a standoff against a vampire army in a strip club. This movie wastes an ungodly number of good ideas and at least one Harvey Keitel. The last shot, though, is pretty good.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Francis Ford Coppola cast everyone famous in Hollywood to be in his highly accurate adaptation and it still turned out boring and riddled with blank performances. Rated on Coppola’s career scale (with “Jack” equal to 0 and “The Godfather” equal to 10) this would be roughly a “Peggy Sue Got Married.”

Salem’s Lot (1979 version) – You’d think that thrice bitten, I’d be quadruply shy, but I still watched a TV miniseries Steven King adaptation against all instincts. It’s not really that bad, but who has the time or patience for a lackluster three-hour rehash of “that house is evil” and “my neighbor is evil” stories (apparently the guy who spent seven hours with “Les Vampyres.”)

Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter – How can a film about Jesus Christ, Mary “Magnum” and Mexican pro wrestler El Santos saving Canadian lesbians from vampires go wrong? Well for starters it can be filmed without a budget and burdened by an anemic script and a sense of humor that fizzles out after ten minutes. The theme song is pretty memorable and the tagline, “Let the power of Christ impale you,” still gets a smile.

Plan 9 From Outer Space – Ed Wood’s sci-fi/horror “masterpiece” is still widely cited as the worst movie of all time despite the fact that it’s silly, bankrupt badness is hilariously enjoyable to cine-trash lovers (which can’t be said for some other bad films). Bela Lugosi’s name appears in the credits, but don’t be fooled, it’s actually Mrs. Wood’s chiropractor behind the cape.

The Lost Boys – Seeing this film after being told by countless fans about its greatness was pretty disappointing. Everyone in this movie needed to stop trying so hard to be cool. I suspect the director had never heard the sage advice, “spare the backhand and spoil the performance.” I would have also smacked away the entire finale while I was at it.

Innocent Blood – A vampire gangster comedy with some good ideas, yet unable to hold a candle against “Vampires in Havana.” John Landis, who is known primarily for his comedies, displays his incompetence at handling all material that isn’t comedy. Oh, and the comedy parts are worst of all. Meanwhile Anne Parillaud is completely miscast in the lead, looking more like an elf on heroine than a vampire.

Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind – It started the whole Chinese hopping vampire craze, but the kung fu, comedy and horror is all so clowny and caricatured that its kind of embarrassing to watch. It has a few highs, but mostly low-brow lows.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – I saw this on TV way back when and I don’t even think I finished it. I seem to recall that it felt a lot like “Armageddon,” but with vampires rather than a comet. It was asking too much of even James Woods to save this one.

Omega Man – Somebody apparently thought it was a good idea to remake “The Last Man on Earth” with Charleston Heston and more motorcycles (a common folklore medicine for flagging productions). That person was very, very wrong. In fact, the only way you could make that worse is if you’d tried to cast Will Smith instead.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It – For all the vitriol that I want to spew at this film, I actually laughed several times. Leslie Nielson and Mel Brooks are not exactly on my good side, but this is one that I can notice lying in the $2.99 bin without feeling the desire to spit on it.

Daughters of Dracula (Vampyres) (1974) – This is pretty much a straight mixture of vampires and soft-core pornography that was actually pretty successful when it first came out. It’s slow, boring and redundant with a plot that goes nowhere, but I doubt the audiences that flocked to this in theaters really cared. In the interest of equal coverage, there’s also “Gayracula” (1983), (Tagline: He’ll suck you dry) but it was too awkward to acquire this one by any method.

Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula – I’m pretty sure I saw this Vlad the Impaler bio on TV some Halloween night a few years back and it ruined the whole evening. It reinforced my distrust of TV stations other than the History Channel trying to teach me historical fact because I’m pretty sure acting this bad wasn’t invented until “Camp Nowhere.” Peter Weller is in it.

Blacula – This movie is really not that bad, which is exactly what’s wrong with it. I was hoping for something about seventy times as over the top and instead it’s just a numbingly bland modernization of the Dracula legend with a mostly black cast. The villain could just have well been any serial killer or costume monster from a million other B-movies.

Vampyros Lesbos – Of the handful of Jesus Franco’s movies that I’ve seen, this one is probably my favorite. That doesn’t say much. It’s sleazy, but there’s an ambition behind it all that wants to make a arty mood piece as much as an exploitive cash-cow.

Fearless Vampire Killers – Considering that this film has a large cult following, there must be a whole subculture of people who laugh when exposed to the exactly same set of stimuli that makes me shake my head and moan for the sake of humanity.

The Night Stalker – A reporter comes to believe that a recent series of killing is the work of a vampire operating in LA. Every other character remains skeptical even after seeing the vampire, watching bullets bounce off it, seeing it fly and hearing it cry, “Kneel, puny mortals. I, your vampire lord, shall suck your blood!” (or some such nonsense). Statistics tell me that this was once the most successful TV movie of all time, but it sounds to me like audiences could have used some extra skepticism themselves.

Van Helsing – I went to see this at a drive-in double feature with “The Day After Tomorrow.” The two movies had about as much combined continuity as the outtakes from a five-minute Bugs Bunny cartoon. The same goes for realism. However, the cartoon would win hands down for character development and enjoyment.

Ganja and Hess – It has a lot of grainy shapes doing drugs and whining about living forever and vaguely defying their own philosophical concepts or something. This one was a long lost cult film that won some indie acclaim when it was discovered and restored for DVD, but I kind of wish the celluloid termites had found it first.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave – I skipped the first and second sequel to “The Horror of Dracula” (1958) secure in the knowledge that most series really climax on their fourth feature. This stagnant, recycled flop convinced me not to find out what I’d missed or to watch sequels four through eight.

Lips of Blood – Jean Rollins is famous for having made dozens of ethereal French, X-rated lesbian vampire movies and his reputation inspired a fair deal of curiosity in me. I mean… dozens? How much of his life did he commit to making those? Did it always stay fresh and new to him? As for me, I could hardly stay awake.

Fright Night – I put this on my list of vampire-movies-to-see because it won a Saturn award for best horror film. What I forgot was that winning a Saturn award in the 1980’s is about as prestigious as tying for third place in “Shakiest Use of Shaky-Cam” category of the MTV movie awards. Dear lord, I hated this film.

Some films I didn’t get around too:

The Bat (with Vincent Price) – I didn’t watch this, but Katie saw the second half and the first. Don’t ask.

Dracula 2000 – Considering that everybody skipped this back in 2000, I didn’t feel any obligation to watch it either.

Embrace of the Vampires – Knowing that this was purely as a vanity project for Alyssa Milano to do sex scenes still wasn’t enough to get this on my priority list. I think that bodes well for there being shreds of dignity somewhere inside me. Then again, there’s always next year.

I Am Legend – It’s not out yet, so you really can’t blame me.

London After Midnight – I don’t think I can be blamed for not seeing this one either. The last copy was destroyed before I was born. Still, the title lives on.

Queen of the Damned – Rice’s sequel to “Interview with a Vampire” has Aaliyah (in her final performance) as a vampire who becomes a rock star and plans a massive live (evil) concert. If I were going to see another vampire film any time soon, it would be this one for sheer gutsy premise alone.

Ultraviolet – Rarely has a preview ever backfired so badly. Had I never seen the trailer, I might have accidentally watched this movie. I gave Milla Jovovich a chance with “Resident Evil,” but this just goes too far. Why not try a Joan of Arc sequel?