Bela Tarr Retrospective: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Introduction

As has become customary for winners of the Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award at the BAM Awards, I have begun a Bela Tarr retrospective. The introduction and initial short film post can be found here and here.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

So it’s been a little longer than I wanted it to be before I returned to this series and gave my first closer look at a title but here it is.

With Werckmeister Harmonies not only do you have Tarr fully embracing his new aesthetic but you also have him creating the trajectory of his remaining films. What can be found here is the opening salvo in the ongoing dialogue of his cinema. Some of the themes both visual and otherwise start here and you can feel them echoed in later works.

For example, the film begins with a shot of a piece of wood being added to the fire on an oven. Now, as it turns out here this is just the opening frame of a lengthy tracking shot, but the motif of wood-burning ovens, flames through the grate and things of the like reappear, most notably in the Turin Horse.

The opening shot is an intricate and quite a famous one. It is perhaps the most we will hear out of our protagonist. However, interestingly this protagonist is one whom for the most part is just a vessel with through which we can be shown the story, such that it is.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

There are two significant and long speeches in the film and much like the only dialogue of consequence in The Turin Horse, the temptation to disregard it rather than trying to ferret out some semblance of meaning is compelling but erroneous. The first such extended piece of dialogue is right there in this opening tracking shot wherein Janos describes to bar full of inebriates the workings of the solar system. I read of a God Complex in one essay but the way Janos walks around observing the whale, being transfixed by it and assigning it no special significance, save for the wondrous work of God that it is, doesn’t quite mesh. I think the intent is likely to define Janos here for we will see little else throughout that does. He listens and does what he is told most of the time. Whether or not he does that to a fault is debatable, but what this is establishing is that he thinks on a simple matter and sees the wonder of it, much like a child would, and seeks to share his wonder. The barkeep lets him go on only so long before kicking him and everyone else out.

The second dialogue passage of significance is when the title the Werckmeister Harmonies is disseminated. It is a rant on musical theory on how the tuning of instruments and the regimentation of notes and octaves created something far more mechanical and less artful and organic than existed prior. On the surface it has nothing to do with anything else, save for the fact that it is this old man’s, Gyuri Eszter’s, obsession. However, it’s not the explanation that matters, but how he feels about it. He likens it to man tinkering with the work of God and here, yet again, we have a theological reference. Now, God here is being invoked in a more existential and cosmic way, rather than in a dogmatic way. It’s seemingly invoked as a larger ideal rather than a denominational claim, much like the the whale and the so-called prince, a dwarfish shadow-figure whose face is not shown threatens the natural order in the minds of many in the town, are.

As in much of Tarr’s work when he stayed shooting in black-and-white, moved the camera more and created a course the film is about decay. It’s about how we as human beings are always teetering on the edge of devolution and anarchy.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

The sound of church bells in this film, much like in Satantango are ascribed and ominous connotation; similarly to that film a broken clock in a church starts working anew rather mysteriously. Much in the way many of the people, except Janos, interpret the whale in their own way. The allegory of the whale is perhaps the most powerful in Tarr’s filmography because for as large and imposing as it is, as much of a spectacle as it is, it can’t do anything. It does not do anything and neither does the feared Prince who evokes passion and creates followers. However, the people believe they can and do and that’s what causes them to react the way they do. The people want no change, in spite of its constancy, and when something threatens that they lash out.

The order the enraged mob seeks to be restoring is an illusion. It’s as much an illusion as film is, which could be why Tarr in this instance brought in two German actors, the wide-eyed, childlike Lars Rudolph as Janos and the formerly omnipresent Fassbinder vamp Hannah Schygulla; and had them speak their lines in German and then had them dubbed, and not necessarily in a way that syncs perfectly, because something it always off.

Uncle Gyuri Eszter, in his diatribe about the Werckemeister harmonies, states that what the struggle is as follows “the octave versus the note; the natural tune versus the manmade construct; the heavenly versus mundane; human hubris versus divine gifts.” And that’s much of what the struggle in this film is.

There are still mysteries to be unraveled. Many can assume, since we did not see him through much of the assault on the hospital, that Janos was not there. However, that long and significant tracking shot ends on him looking terrified after the violence stops upon the site of the frail old man who no one wants to harm. So one can wonder did he just witness it all, unable to stop it; or was he a party to it. Similarly is the account he reads in the church one he found or one he wrote himself. The film leaves them purposely vague. However, I think it correlates more with both his passivity and his folly that he was merely a witness. What is left unsaid the end that he was inactive in the assault and not the author of what he read.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

When all is said and done he’s the perfect scapegoat. The society back to its so-called sense and must now restore order and the most logical scapegoat is Janos. They, meaning all the citizens, recognize neither God nor Man, so he must leave. The end of the film is uncle Gyuri Eszter going to see the whale. It is left out in the square on display where the madness began passive and immobile as it always has been.

It’s a film that’s really not about what happens, but why it happens and that answer is not nearly so nebulous people have willed it to be. They’ve assigned meanings based on their fears and ignorance and punished the guilty. In almost an eschewing of genre toward the end there is a helicopter, maybe verifying early rumors of military involvement, hovering in the sky behind Janos. It circles him quite bit, but it’s not going to try and barrel him over like the cropduster in North by Nothwest. It’ll just watch him and let him know that he’s targeted. He’s the odd man out because he embraced the whale and got the finger pointed at him and now he must go down the train tracks and out of town.

All that remains is delusion and lies, he’s told once and that’s the way it stays. It’s merely an illustration of that statement is what the film is. The people fear, they know nothing. They do not move on. The Prince is gone, the circus is burnt, the whale lies alone; an abandoned blasphemy and things go on unchanged.

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DVD Review – Straight A’s

Introduction

I don’t frequently write DVD reviews, but upon seeing this film I was compelled to watch the special bonus features on it as well. Typically, I would stick to a review of the program on the disc, but have included thoughts on the features below.

Film

Straight A's (2013, Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment)

The film has a very basic synopsis and I will not elaborate much at all on that here. It’s likely better that you go in knowing that much or less about this film. Straight A’s really caught me by surprise as a refreshing, character-driven family dramedy, that doesn’t get bogged down in the histrionics that are potential pitfalls of a film with a synopsis such as this one.

I will readily admit that I just may have a soft spot for family dramedies. However, the recent film in the subgenre that comes to mind for me is Fireflies in the Garden, and that film pushes its melodramatic limits, whereas there is a fairly realistic grounding to be found here. Characters’ motivations and reactions make sense, things are played up as much as they need to be and are still fairly effective. While the overtures of external conflict are apparent, there is also a lot inner-turmoil that the film is wise enough to hold the reins on, and allow some disputes to be settled sub-textually rather than textually.

There are two things this film does very well early on that set it up for success: The first is that it establishes an overt structure for the titles that confirm the passage of time and that a new day has begun. I’m not one who is slavish towards a ticking clock mentality, but far too often films employing this sub-division approach lag because we as an audience have no clue what the endgame is, and they’d be better off letting time flow organically. This structure becomes intrinsic to this film and aids the flow of it.

That narrative structure established is confirmed by the voice over of the film’s narrator Charles (Thomas Riley Stewart) and that sets up one of the many wonderful symmetries of this film. Quite a few pieces of dialogue, motifs and themes come back around unexpectedly and close many a tidy, well-wrought circle. This is assisted by the strong, certain manner in which the narrative asserts itself.

In building these characters the film does well to split the job. It always shows something about them when they’re alone, usually visually, and is constantly rounding in interaction, but perhaps the best work the film does is through dialogue. The black sheep returning to the fold is Scott (Ryan Phillippe) who is always direct. There is also the fact that Charles is very intelligent that could lead to a number of pitfalls, but his dialogue isn’t instantly and persistently showy, and neither of the kids are condescended to. It’s just one tool that that the film uses to constantly add new definition to its main characters, but one of the best used.

One good example both of dialogue and of how the film avoids overplaying its hand is one of the lead-up-to events – an oral presentation Charles has before his whole school. In this sequence, I was reminded of how the speech in Crazy, Stupid, Love devolved from its diegetic script to being a very literal thinking out loud. There’s a clear message, but never one that’s bluntly said. It’s also another good case of follow-through in the subjective editing choices that are made.

There is also good use of montages and cross-cutting sequences that are more nested and less overt than you see many times. For as strong as the film is with its use of dialogue, it doesn’t ignore the visual end of things either and has quite a few visual signatures throughout.

Of course, any film described as character-driven needs its actors to deliver in order to work and this film has that as well. Ryan Phillippe seems to be quite connected throughout and fills in those blanks the script can’t; portraying troubled, irresponsible with good intentions that could just read like a jerk. Luke Wilson, like in Meeting Evil, finds a part that really seems to suit his type, his poker-faced, button-lipped character’s moment of decision reads better due the whole of his performance. Paquin’s facade of control is always erected, even as she loses it, and it makes her a presence that can be reasonable seem to be one that would be acquiesced to, even by Scott. There’s also Powers Boothe with a significant secondary role, that’s sensitive and understated. Boothe is an actor who you literally can’t see enough of. Last, but not least, there’s Riley Thomas Stewart who has the unenviable task of playing intelligent, precocious yet still childlike and endearing, and he succeeds with flying colors. Even when the dialogue is clearly designed to show his vast intellect it just sounds like Charles talking as opposed to an actor doing a line reading, which is a hard task with verbose lines.

Straight A‘s is the kind of film that might slip under one’s radar. I know I’m glad I found it, as it’s yet another dark horse for this year that I really connected with.

9/10

Special Features

Straight A's (2013, Millennium Entertainment)

While they are a little stripped-down with quick cuts to black and spotty audio, the three special features on the disc make up for in content what they lack in flash.

There’s a featurette, which is about trailer-length that’s a quick splicing together of interview and final film footage.

There are interviews with director, producers and several stars of the film, which run about 17 minutes and explore the themes of the work rather well without getting overly-bogged down in minutiae, but also lends a personal perspective from each participant with interesting tidbits.

Most interesting to me was the behind the scenes footage. They were usually rather quick shots taken during production of the set-up of shots, gear being put in place or moved, takes being done, or re-done and the like. This runs around six minutes. It’s bereft of commentary so it would likely be more intriguing for a filmmaker, but it is an interesting touch to be added to the package.

Straight A‘s is out on DVD and Blu-Ray today.

Rewind Review- My One and Only

This is an absolute dream of a film that will likely be overlooked by moviegoers and the award season alike but is one of the best films of the year. Due to the fact that much of the film deals with Renée Zellweger’s character seeking a new husband it has been classified as a screwball comedy by many, however, this is but one aspect of this film.

This film is a story full of characters that are well-defined Zellweger who is sensational in this part has a very unique view of life. She in a Blanche DuBois kind of way relies on the kindness of strangers but seeks a certain standard of living for her and her boys. Finding a new father is how she thinks she can best mother them and drags them around the country in the 50s while seeking a new beau.

Being dragged along with her are her two sons Robbie and George. Robbie, the elder, is interested in theatre and fashion and played brilliantly by Mark Rendall. Robbie’s homosexuality is a prime example of the refreshing nature of this film. He just is and it’s like the white elephant in the room and is rarely mentioned which is accurate but he is totally accepted by his mother and half-brother. He also wields a gun without much drama and little stereotype in onepivotal scene.

George is less pleased to be along on the trip. He is more of a realist and frequently clashes with his mother. He is played with remarkable aplomb by Logan Lerman in a startling turn. Lerman will be a star for years to come based on his talent alone.

Renée Zellweger, as mentioned previously, is sensational in this film where she slowly but surely shows there’s more to her than meets the eye and yet realizes her imperfections. She completely immerses herself in this part and disappears into it.

This film has dialogue which is funny and effective. For every funny scene there is one of real emotion. Even though some events you know will happen but the how of it is the fun and what you don’t guess.

The score is also a unique signature and effective. It is jazzy and similar to that the band Dan, the boys’ estranged father played well by Kevin Bacon plays.

The entire supporting cast was extremely good. It’s the kind of movie you can try to fault but you won’t find much if anything. What a great find – go and see it.

10/10

Christmas Special Review- Frosty Returns

Where does one begin with Frosty Returns? Well, I supposed I could start out by simply saying that it is not recommended in the least and what follows will illustrate why:

Firstly, there is a stylistic incongruity to this special that’s hard to get over. The first few scenes set up different locations but are animated as if they are splicing scenes out of different projects. There is no sense of visual unity to the front end of the piece but it’s a problem that never fully rights itself.

Then there is the absolutely odd mixture of voice talents. The first mistake this special made in that regard was to carry on the tradition of creating a character that looks like the actor doing the narration. With the shoddy animation work and the fact that you have Jonathan Winters and not Jimmy Durante it’s a failed homage. You get a grab bag of comedic actors: Jan Hooks, Andrea Martin and Brian Doyle-Murray. Notable amongst the kids is Michael Patrick Carter a few year before his only true claim to fame in Milk Money.

Then there is John Goodman as Frosty, which ends up being the most troubling and much of the why doesn’t even have to do with him. He’s given quite a bit of weak dialogue to work with, nothing even shining a candle to what came before, and we all know John Goodman can sing but then he’s given songs not quite in his range and it wouldn’t work because the lyrics are terrible.

Then there’s this asinine plot about this aerosol type spray that will remove the snow, ruin a festival and the environment and in this crazed little town a majority of the kids hate snow, which is really weird.

If this hadn’t been included in the holiday specials set I got I never would’ve sought it out it really is an unfortunate misfire in all respects.

Thankful for World Cinema: Before Tomorrow

Before Tomorrow is the conclusion of a trilogy of films about the Inuit people being shot in Canada. The first being Fast Runner, which I saw and loved, and The Diary of Knud Rasmussen, which somehow was missed. It is a thematic trilogy, and not a sequential trilogy, following more in the European tradition where it’s variations on a theme and not necessary a contiguous storyline.

The film is both sparse in dialogue and replete with visual wonders. It might seem like a simple task to go up north near the Arctic Circle and get wondrous images and let the vistas do the work but there are frames, compositions and exposures that truly make these shots what they are. The edit also plays into the visual beauty of this film. There are at least three dissolves which are executed with such grace and beauty on both ends it brought to mind a quote by Truffaut where he says “So few directors can gracefully dissolve one shot into another.” This most certainly is not the case here.

There are also two different kinds of shooting here. There are more narrative-based landscape shots as the story gets more and more focused on the Grandmother (Madeline Ivalu) and her grandson (Paul-Dylan Ivalu), yet at the beginning there is quite a bit of handheld documentary-style shooting which is very well-done.

What you get in this film and its predecessors is truly a modern interpretation of Neo-Realism. Non-professional but engaging actors playing parts they understand in minimalist storylines. To relate the entirety of the tale would be entirely too easy within this space and would leave you with no surprises. There are surprises to be had and there are many emotions to be experienced within.

What will be said can be true of all simplistic storytelling, it’s the execution that elevates it, and that’s definitely the case here, yet as stripped-down as the on-screen action is there manage to be stories within the story. The film examines the oral traditions of the tribe and there are frequently stories being asked for and told that either inform or contrast the action we have been witness to.

The film ends as a close to the trilogy because after the tale of this particular installment is told then there is a slow-motion montage of the tribe living. Barring seeing the middle installment this could very well be the most overlooked, under-appreciated and impressive trilogies of the decade.

This is a film that will not cut quickly, that will take its time to develop. Allow it to. There is more than one way to make a film and to make a hyper-kinetic film with a people who are concerned with months and seasons and not so much with minutes and hours would seem wrong.

What you find here is a tidy, simple tale which is well told and as the best cinema does it shows you a world you would otherwise have no access to. It’s a tender and tenderly told tale which has humor, humanity and surprises. It’s a film that truly transports and even only having seen the bookends this was the perfect capper to the trilogy.

10/10

61 Days of Halloween: Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Friday the 13th, Part IV: The Final Chapter

As per usual, this installment started with scenes of the previous films spliced in, here, however, they finally get creative with it and have it be more montage style and less blatant exposition as it also shows several memorable kills right off the bat to get the audience’s appetite whetted for what’s to come.

The film also picks up immediately with the paramedics and police clearing the scene of the latest massacre. In a very nice touch, the film actually takes a breath once the camp is empty anew and lets us realize that this was just the scene of chaos and now it’s as if nothing happened, all we hear are the crickets. It’s perhaps the best of the few masterful strokes this film has. It’s a film that eventually trips itself but that was a great moment.

The dialogue throughout most of the film is nothing short of a train wreck. Couple that with much overacting and it’s difficult to have sympathy for many of the characters who Jason is about to slay.

There are too many characters in the equation in this film, especially considering how it ends. You meet the Jarvis family, then a group of teens going to a cabin in the woods (cue the score from Evil Dead: The Musical) and the twins they meet and then a Jason hunter. Now, I am well aware that this is a body count franchise but the time could’ve been alloted differently. Shorter teen & twins intro, shorter canoodling sequence, get them killed build the Jarvis family and the “Jason hunter” who will factor greatly in the film.

There are, in the end, too many balls in the air that don’t really have any bearing on the end of the film or the main thrust of the film. Again, these things can still happen but they were either too long or repetitive. There is some bad random 80s dancing, randomly found silent porn which is watched for too long, a lot of cattiness both of the male and the female variety that can all be avoided.

While the end with Jason being fooled by Tommy and Tommy’s turn are wonderful truly masterful strokes there is prior stupidity that undercuts its effectiveness. The main sticking point is this Trish is frantic when she finds out Jason’s loose and has to get home to protect Tommy. She returns home in a panic to confirm he’s fine. She is informed their mom is missing. Even though “The Hunter” insists she stays home while he finds her and Jason she insists on going…which leaves Tommy, who she was just so panicked about, alone again…come on man! It’s the simplest fix in the world and it wasn’t fixed and just took me out of the moment. Suspension of disbelief, gone.

The end does manage to be effective. If you like the series and are a completist definitely view it but it was hanging on by thread to liking it but that lapse in logic lost me.

Mini-Review Round-Up September 2012

I had quite a review drought to end 2011 so I think the remedy for this kind of post would be to have the post be cumulative monthly. Therefore, after each qualifying film a short write-up will be added to the monthly post. The mini-reviews will be used to discuss Netflix and other home video screenings. Theatrical releases will get full reviews, or another kind of write-up as per my recent shift in focus.

For a guide to what scores mean go here.

Note: Apologies for this post being late. Also, I am weighing what a cut-off should be for films that have has no US release date past. As for now they are all eligible. Some films viewed last month are listed here instead.

[REC] 3: Genesis

This is a prime example of having to go where the movie takes you and not judging it based on what you wanted or expected it to be. I have already expressed how much I love what [REC] 2 did for that series. When you hear that this one is going to be a prequel you assume, “Great, it’ll be about the patient zero.” The connection is more tenuous than that. However, what you do get in this [REC] tale is humor, great horror, action, effects and gore and more theological blanks filled in than before. Whether or not part 4 can, and will, be the conclusion this series needs/deserves remains to be seen, but this film is what it wants to be: a very strong, fairly stand-alone piece that contributes to a larger narrative.

8/10

Spud

This is a South African film of some acclaim, which I sought a foreign region DVD of since its US distribution is more doubtful the further from its initial domestic release we get. Spud was nominated for six South African Film and Television Awards (the foreign award is something I may touch upon in November) and an adaptation of a famous novel series. The film stars Troye Sivan (most well known from YouTube or Wolverine) and John Cleese. The film sets as a backdrop the momentous events of 1990 and the release of Nelson Mandela, but what it focuses mainly on is a funny, occasionally touching, tale that’s a dawn of awareness, and coming out of one’s shell. It’s an appropriately episodic tale, that moves well for the most part and features great, surprising and fitting songs as well.

7/10

V/H/S

Yes, any anthology film by its very nature will have its ups and downs. You as a viewer will connect more with one piece or another, one section or another will be more well-executed or intriguing, especially if there are different writer(s) and/or director(s) handling each portion. This year I’ve taken to watching a lot more anthologies, which proliferate in horror more so than most genres. It has moments which are few and far between, set-ups are too long making it structurally askew in segments and in toto, acting is scarce; the frame of the story is fairly poor. This dereliction of pace and structure makes the two hour total running time seem nearly double that.

For a frame of reference here are brief comparisons to other anthologies so you know where I’m coming from: From a Whisper to a Scream has a stand-out segment, this does not; Creepshow has a brilliant frame, this does not. V/H/S seems to seek a unified tonality and aesthetic that it doesn’t quite achieve, Tales from the Hood does. Theatre Bizarre is wildly inconsistent, this is fairly consistent in its terribleness.

1/10

Amors Baller

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Amors Baller, aside from the way that it handles the Swedish/Norwiegian dynamic, is that it puts football (soccer) out front as the key to a boy (Kåre Hedebrant, Let the Right One In) winning over his new crush. While the junior tournament plays a major part, it’s a setting that doesn’t take up as much screentime and the results doesn’t factor in as much towards the end as you might expect. It ends up being more about relationships and friendship. It’s a funny, heartfelt and quick-moving film.

7/10

The Hidden Face

What is most interesting about The Hidden Face is what it does structurally. There’s an inventiveness to a surprising revelation made that allows for it to play with perspective and narrative point-of-view in very creative ways. There is a bit of steam it loses in trying to amplify every single odd moment that needs clarifying after the break, but it remains a very haunting, odd and twisted horror tale. It’s one that is definitely worth seeking out.

7/10

Nimmermeer

One of my first thoughts upon seeing Nimmermeer was how is Toke Constantin Hebbeln, the director of this film, a name I only now have just heard. Now, granted since this 2006 hour-long film he’s made other shorts and just last month released a feature called Shores of Hope in Germany. Regardless, it’s not only the narrative but the cinematography, the staging and the penetrating emotion of this film, which oozes magical realism, that really makes it standout. It’s told like a fairy tale replete with narration but in a context that is very real and immediate. Odd things happen and are not explained away. The story is what it is and it’s at the service of its protagonist and its audience in dramatically, beautifully rendering its message. Leonard Proxauf, who later starred in The White Ribbon, is great in this film.

10/10

Penumbra

What Penumbra attempts to do is something I can definitely appreciate. How it goes about trying to do it is what I really have a problem with. It overplays its hand in some regards and is a bit too broad in the portrayal of its protagonist, her dialogue a bit too blunt; not to mention the scenes that set-up the gotcha ending that only play more annoyingly once everything is revealed. It’s an interesting examination of the Spanish-Argentine dynamic but many other recent co-productions layer horror, colonial antagonism and modern Latin America’s socioeconomic climate better than this does, combine that with its failings as a horror film and it becomes quite bothersome indeed.

4/10

Vorstadtkrokodile 2 and Vorstadtkrokodile 3: Freunde Fur Immer

Perhaps one of the most interesting things that one can start learning or realizing when you obtain films from other regions is that various film industries world-wide are not too different from Hollywood, for better and worse. What we in the US get in art houses are the more erudite, obviously artistic films from overseas. If you look at trades when they report on international bureaucratic/business-related controversies art versus commerce comes up. Essentially, we get the independents from overseas. Next time you watch a foreign film pay attention to the credits and see how many production companies, governmental agency logos and other corporate logos pop up in the opening credits. But the major studios have presences overseas, and even without that each country has its own brand of genre cinema, which is generally made for domestic consumption. Subtitles aren’t found on all foreign-made DVDs and many times only languages of neighboring nations apply.

However, globalization is here and many films are seeking to attain some popularity in the home video market abroad by including more and more subtitles.

Which brings me around to the Vorstadtkrokodile movies. Or as they’re called in English The Crocodiles.

This version is a recent German trilogy based on a popular children’s novel, which I believe was even translated to English at one point. Not unlike American trilogies this series raced to the multiplexes with releases in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Such that the second installment feels a little flimsy and all over the place. There’s some cool fantasy elements, some good jokes but the characters seem to be in stasis. Also similar to American movies, a musician-turned-actor is in the mix; Fabi Halbig drummer from the popular band Killerpilze was recruited to play one of the main roles. Also, not unlike American films Nick Romeo Reimann, one of the latter additions to Die Wilden Kerle (The Wild Soccer Bunch) goes immediately from that series and takes the lead in this film.

Now, all that commentary may sound cynical but they’re just facts. What occurs in the third film is a very pleasant surprise. The story is far more unified. It starts light and frivolous and gets serious. There’s great comic relief and it connects back to the first film. It closes a circle and consciously concludes the series. Just taking a few series by example at the very least these series come fast and furious and know when it’s time to close. It’s a warm and heartfelt conclusion that takes some outlandish plotlines to real and honest places emotionally and give the trilogy great closure.

Reimann, now moving on to other projects, seems destined to continue finding work and may even transition seamlessly into adult roles. It’s a bit early yet, but considering his steady participation in two series, totaling six films, with increased emotional demands in each successive film; drawing a parallel between him and Daniel Radcliffe is not far-fetched.

4/10 and 8/10

Pan Negro

Francesc Colomer in Black Bread (Massa d’Or Produccions) Spains Official Selection not yet distributed in the US.

This was a film that featured previously on The Movie Rat during last year’s post about the Oscar Foreign Film Submission Process. It was a gutsy choice to submit this film over the likes of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, but I applaud gutsy choices such as Dogtooth. That and the fact that Villaronga is a director I’ve seen and like previously made me intrigued by this film.

One thing that’s a double-edged sword about it being Spain’s submission last year is its indigenous nature. It’s a film set in the the Catalan region and deals greatly with the Spanish Civil War and the aftermath thereof. It layers in horror elements, legend, drama, politics and coming-of-age with deft and not much bluntness. One’s familiarity with the vaguest aspects of the conflict will be aided greatly in viewing it.

The story divides itself neatly and the section whose title alludes to a later scene is the strongest.

7/10

Asterix and the Vikings

Asterix and the Vikings (M6 Films)

This is a movie that I have a rather unusual relationship with. I actually didn’t know about this fairly recent animated rendition of Asterix until I was in Orlando earlier this year. In Epcot, there was a book of the film and I got it. The book renders the movie fairly well and considering that I as a fan of Asterix was fairly disappointed in the live-action version I was excited.

What it really goes to show is that putting production elements in place: music, dialogue, voice actors, the different animation techniques and effects employed made the movie so much more immersive than I imagined. From the book it seemed like standard fare: fun bordering on cute. The film that the book represents is a very fully realized version of the tale and is highly recommended to fans of this beloved character.

10/10

61 Days of Halloween- The Final

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

The Final

This is the kind of movie I like to talk about. Immediately upon tweeting my reaction I got two very disparate reactions from others who had also seen it. In either case, I could understand the reactions from both of my Twitter compatriots who expressed differing views on the film. Essentially, I only took the tweet discussion so far because I knew I’d have enough characters here, not there, to explain why I come out on the positive side of the film.

Starting off on the negative end: this film has a rocky start. However, it epitomizes why I am very hesitant to give up on a film. The film has serious, serious issues in establishing its characters. A lot of the early set-up, mainly of the bullies in tale, falls into the stereotype realm and does come off as either overly-blunt or tin-eared.

So while The Final very quickly squanders its opportunity to be truly great, it does build its characters and works towards a set-up that is highly effective. Thankfully for the film the running time is not long, and the first act mounts steadily towards the turn in events such that the cumulative effect, even if uneasily handled, is a desired one. The goal of the protagonists is not only easily identified, but understood and anticipated.

To finish this point on stereotypes: is it lazy writing? Yes, but I feel they do melt away to an extent as you see the characters react to an extremely stressful situation. Also, when there’s the anticipated role reversal there is good conflict and illustrations of just how far these characters are willing to go. There is also the point that is difficult to deal with in art, which is that these types exist for a reason. I’d even go so far as to postulate the possibility that the exaggeration of types was a conscious choice to make the audience more readily become immersed in an outlandish and hard to deal with situation.

The rendering of the situation alluded to in the synopses for the film is what makes it work. What clinches it as very enjoyable is the the interpretation of events thereof, and what elevates it to about the heights it can hope to achieve, considering some of its issues, is that fairly adept commentary and the mirrored frame. The performances of Marc Donato and Lindsay Seidel are the strongest and most compelling.

In the end, The Final overcomes its inconsistencies to be a fairly impressive situational horror piece with built-in commentary on many subjects, whether it be bullying or school violence, that’s not overly-augmented by the characters. It’s a film that builds identification of type such that there’s a connection to torturous scenes besides mere voyeurism.

It’s a film you’re likely to fall on either side of. If you look at the synopsis and can handle it; I’d recommend it.

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Five)

Note: What follows is a full analysis of the entire film, all other parts of this essay are fairly spoiler-free with regards to the film but this is not. You’ve been warned.

Maximum Overdrive begins with a title insert basically stating that the earth will be stuck in the tail of a rogue comet for about a week. The insert seems a extraneous to me and takes away from the story to a certain extent, however, King may have stated his reasoning in an earlier writing “…any horror film (with the possible exception of the German expressionist films of the teens and twenties) has got to at least pay lip service to credibility” (Danse, 156). One will note that even Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street give their slashers traumatic pasts they must exorcise. In this film the explanation comes early and removes a necessary suspense element I feel would’ve helped the story out. One may also notice that the picture of the earth used in this sequence is backwards meaning Egypt now looks out on the Atlantic. I don’t know how no one caught that.
    

The film is set in Wilmington, North Carolina for the duration of the story. The only other time King set a tale in the south was The Green Mile. He’s set tales in Nevada, Pennsylvania and had a few go across some states but usually relied on atmosphere or people he could sketch reasonably well, which is Maine. The characters in this tale while are sometimes sketched and drawn out by King, to the extent he could with the limitations of the film but they’re acted like caricatures in most cases.
 (Note: This geographic note was correct upon the original writing. Since then King has taken to wintering in Florida, thus his fiction goes there sometimes too).    

We first see the way that the comet affects machinery on the streets of Wilmington.  First, we see a news ticker over a bank that constantly displays the phrase “Fuck You.” Then we get the early King cameo in which, he’s a bumpkin who’s called an “Asshole” by his ATM machine, this is humorous but nowhere near as good as his role as Jordy Verrill in Creepshow.  These small details may add a bit of eeriness to the beginning but as is the theme throughout this film we get a lot more humor than fright. In this sequence all the laughs are intended.

After this we get what might be one of the more frightening sequences of the film, unfortunately no one really escapes this scene unharmed. There is no protagonist who makes their way out of this wreckage and moves on to where a bulk of the action takes place. Instead, what we get is quite an effective crash scene that shows that all machinery can now think and the drawbridge lifts even though all the cars got the green light. The bridgemaster and his assistant look befuddled and the bridge is a disaster area. Everyone is stuck at the base of the lifted bridge. A motorcycle rider flies off the edge, this is the source of the big continuity error one man slides of his motorcycle and we see him seemingly go in two directions, and also go out the gap which hasn’t opened as big as camera angles would have us believe later. This huge mistake is also surprising considering Evan A. Lottman, who edited The Exorcist and Sophie’s Choice worked on this film. This scene is somewhat freaky but is also a little extraneous.
    

We then cut and see the Happy Toyz truck, it’s adorned with a huge demon face on the grill and has a slogan emblazoned across its broadside (“Here Comes a Load of Joy,” King’s ability to come up with clever and humorous slogans is uncanny). It is driven by Andy (J. Don Ferguson) who stops at the Dixie Boy Truck Stop. We get our first good shot here it comes when Andy’s talking to one of the gas jockeys, it’s a medium from the inside of the truck and we get a hint that soon there’s going to be some trouble.
 

We’re introduced to our protagonist next, Billy played by Emilio Estevez in his first role outside of “The Brat Pack.” Someone should have told Emilio that it is very difficult to flex your acting muscles and make a name of yourself from one horror film. Inside the Dixie Boy we now see that the pinball, coffee and cigarette machines are going crazy in the game room and we get a bad performance out of Videoplayer (Giancarlo Esposito) who is quickly killed off.

The first act’s pace is relentless as soon after Duncan (J.C. Quinn) is outside filling the Happy Toyz truck and the pump has mysteriously stopped. He removes the nozzle to check what’s going on and gets sprayed in the eye with diesel. At this moment we get our first sample of the score, the true score and not any sort of source music. While the score like so many is reminiscent of Hermann’s Psycho we only get this stabbing music on a few rare occasions. A few old AC/DC songs were used for this film along with a new one entitled “Who Made Who?” I happen to know that Stephen King is a big fan of AC/DC but I feel that he knows enough about horror to not have left most of the music track in this film dead. There is a lot of silence and it wasn’t very effective at all. AC/DC provided the wrong kind of mood with their high to medium Heavy Metal riffs. It makes me wonder if most of the budget wasn’t diverted towards pyrotechnics and Emilio’s salary further taking away from the film’s quality.
    

We’re later introduced to Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle) who shows himself to be the human villain in this tale. He is unscrupulous and uncaring. His character is quite well played. Then we see King’s first big touch when we see a headline about the comet. Prior Duncan and Joey (Pat Miller) had been talking and it was more subtle and many people won’t realize that the “Mickey Mantle” they were referring to is Deke (Holter Graham), Duncan’s son. In this film King had a little more than 90 pages and too many characters to deal with in that allotted time.
 
   
Our next two mechanical attacks work in different ways and introduce two more characters. A hand-held electric saw attacks the waitress Wanda June (Ellen McElduff) gets her forearm sliced into this is quite a gross moment and also establishes Billy as the protagonist. Then we cut to the baseball field and Deke’s team has just won and the coach is attacked by soda cans shot out of the vending machine. There is some great makeup work in this scene and it’s also pretty funny along with a shocking steamrolling shot that literally made my jaw drop. There are more characters to get to though.
    

We are in a car and getting a radio report about the odd occurrences a la Night of the Living Dead, but more subtle, and are introduced to the Bible Salesman (Christopher Murney) and Brett (Laura Harrington) a hitchhiker he has picked up. The Bible Salesman actually ends up being quite a good hypocritical character in this tale carrying a briefcase with has gold leaf on it and has “The Holy Bible” scrolled across it. Brett is going to be the love interest and this party like Deke are heading to the Dixie Boy. Laura Harrington should have gotten an Oscar…thrown at her, she was so terrible in this film. As a matter of fact the casting in this movie for the most part is rather weak; I wonder why in the closing credits the Casting Director got top billing. A director should know his actors limitations and should have reworked his characters accordingly.
  

Staying in the mode of less than satisfactory acting we switch over to Curt (John Short) and Connie who are a newlywed couple. Connie (Yeardley Smith) who went on to make a name for herself on The Simpsons as Lisa, is so annoying in this role it is nearly impossible to sympathize with her. John Short is one of the actors who ruins some of Stephen King’s great dialogue by having no idea how to deliver it. This is where King should have stepped in and altered the dialogue. It does pain a writer to change effective and intelligent dialogue for simple, pedestrian dialogue but it should be done when the actors sound stupid saying these lines.
    

Along Deke’s journey on bike to the Dixie Boy we see the wrath of the machines has left many dead bodies splayed all over the place. We get an eerie feeling again with a guitar riff for each corpse that is found. If there is one thing that can be said for this film is that all the effects are well done; as we see the trucks maneuver, drive and terrorize people. When these vehicles are on the move on their own they even drive better than real people in film they did quite an admirable job in that respect.
    

Perhaps the best dialogue King has to offer us in this film is when the Bible Salesman is trying to sell some editions in the Dixie Boy. This is also where we see Wanda June start drinking it may be the most well written scene of the film capped off by the salesman saying “This Bible has everything from the creation of this beautiful world to the fall of mankind.” This is the closest we come to seeing the implications that King had intended to impose, aside from a painting of the Last Supper we see for a few seconds, in the short story and there isn’t enough emphasis placed on this scene in my opinion. I also feel it’s a humorous commentary on how the salesman doesn’t know his scripture because all Bibles, regardless of denomination, include those tales.
    

Right before Duncan goes out to be killed we see how the blood has escaped his burned eyes. It’s a rather creepy shot that reminds me of one of King’s favorite films X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes. This death occurs in minute 32 and already we’ve seen so many characters. The Bible Salesman is later sent flying into the sewer after he charged the truck that smashed his car. King, being one who doesn’t believe in any one Christian doctrine, throwing a Bible Salesman into a gutter is a great touch. The truck that decks him also rolls over his Bible briefcase which I liked. When the body is returned to the truck stop we get another good piece of dialogue Bubba says, “He’s dripping all over my floor.” to get the people moving.
    

Stephen King also usefully employs the sewer in the attempted rescue of the Bible Salesman who we find many minutes later is clinging to life in the gutter. This provides the film with it’s only truly good looking and dark cinematography. John Short also displays his inability to deliver a great off-color line written by King in the sewer sequence (“What happened to the people who peed in this?”). The salesman we see is ultimately not worth saving when Deke finds him and the salesman says “Help me or I’ll kill you,” very Christian.
     

Just after the trucks smash a phone booth, we assume in order to effectively isolate them, and begin to angrily circle the truck stop instead of attempting to build some tension we cut away to Curt and Connie, who are chased by an eighteen-wheeler, it’s literally a cut to the chase situation. King had the opportunity to have a situational and somewhat atmospheric film but I feel that was robbed from him by producers looking to imitate many of the 80s poorer films.
    

The way in which these massive hunks of metal are fought most of the times is through gunfire, this is aided by the fact that Hendershot has a huge armory in his basement, which seems to hold everything from AK-47s to Bazookas. The only way in which the special effects fail in this film, being no ballistics expert I’m not sure, but the bazooka’s missiles are never seen in flight we only see the truck exploding. With something that big I’d go to the optical lab and add it even if it is technically inaccurate. 
    

King touches upon the flying airplane mentioned in his short story but this also comes out as comical. Once again we have a nice shot from the inside of the plane and can see the plane operating itself. It is turned humorous by the employment of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”
    

Aside from the seemingly incessant presence of the comedy in this film we are also pestered by the lack of darkness; we are bombarded by light. “The dark, it goes without saying, provides the basis for our most primordial fear.” (Danse, 182). Cinematographer, Armando Nannuzzi, had done plenty of films in Italy for years on end and had most recently done quite an admirable job with King’s Silver Bullet. The nighttime footage in that film was effective in deemphasizing the low-budget werewolf but he seemed to thrive on the use of daylight to make some of his more impressive shots in Maximum Overdrive. In all fairness, Maximum Overdrive is a bright, pretty to look at film with sporadic good shots but it’s not quintessential horror. With the positive affect of darkness being so obvious one must wonder if budgetary concerns or perhaps weakness in the lighting department played into it. Even though much of the story is at day time in prose King must have realized he’d need more nighttime scenes for the film. He also knows that not only is it needed but the dark and night time is often heavily used in certain films. “All but approximately eighteen minutes of John Carpenter’s Halloween are set after nightfall.” (Danse, 186). Whereas after sunset we have but 17 minutes in the dark, and then we also have the interesting situation in which most of the human deaths occurred in broad daylight. In this film, the first scene to be set in a darkened place is in minute 48 and the sun only sets three minutes later more than halfway through the movie. Later on in the sequence, the truck stop also loses its power but this is not used in any sort of dramatically moving way and it comes back on before ever having taken any sort of toll on the story. And we are made well aware of it by a beautiful shot of the sunset.

Afterwards, we get the weird green effect in the sky which is larger in some areas of the sky than others. It was used at the beginning to symbolize the comet’s tail. In a poorly acted moment yet again provided by Laura Harrington, in the role of Brett, assumes the comet must be causing all this. It’s in a way also King’s most unfortunate piece of writing because the title card shown from the beginning is practically reiterated for the audience.  At night it seems that only Wanda June and Deke have been affected negatively. Billy is courting Brett, all others are unmoved by the celestial oddity. It’s very unusual that King with the understanding of character he has wouldn’t have gotten on these actors and told them they weren’t driving home the suspense and claustrophobic elements that should have been what was carrying the film.
    

Billy and Brett dominate this section of the film with their nighttime romance which I can only describe as filler. While I understand people can cling to each other in such a situation there was too much focus on the romance for my liking while I do applaud King for not being afraid to implement it. Wanda June dies an overacted death, she was completely drunk and yells the lines I least liked from King’s short story “We made you.” and if a film such as this can have a subtext she just blurted out part of it and she made this little speech more than once.

    
Another thing which constantly plagued this film was that it was very heavy with incident in the beginning and towards the middle of the film the action begins to taper off. The story becomes diverted to an extent.
    

Many times we are shown that Deke is the best drawn of all the characters. In the beginning we see him check on his injured coach, he’s then scared off by the salesman. He breaks down upon hearing about his father’s death, then the next morning has apparently regressed and is blowing bubbles. Not only that but when the trucks start beeping he not only realizes it is Morse code but translates it. What would have made this a better film was some more focus. At the end, when the great exodus of the Dixie Boy begins, we see eleven characters running, three of which I don’t think ever had their name uttered in the film but were perhaps named in the script.
    

The Morse incident is where the trucks admit that they need to be refueled. Billy’s reasoning eventually wins out. They pump gas for the truck because the dried out ones might call for one or many that can destroy them. A few more vehicles do show up including what appears to be a mini-flatbed with a machine gun set on a tripod, which in the end seems a little too beatable. During this sequence Emilio Estevez’s performance, which was nothing earth-shattering to begin with, also slips when we see him yelling at the truck, the Happy Toyz one with the Green Goblin face.
    

Towards the end we get an escape. The truck stop blows up. The Evil Truck which has been harassing the people and is the villain gets a bazooka in its open mouth. This moment is somewhat effective as we think for a moment maybe that one can’t be beat but then it explodes. We end with another annoying title card with a sappy finishing touch and some odd Soviet involvement in destroying a “weather satellite.” And the film closes on a comedic note with the last line of dialogue being Connie saying “Ooh, I think I’m gonna whoops my cookies.”
  
 
Maximum Overdrive is a film that has a few shocking and jaw-dropping moments. All the effects are well done and the cinematography is well-composed. What King ends up providing is a movie that ends up being a pretty good comedy/adventure, which is probably why he didn’t like it all that much. He should definitely give it another go because despite the bad casting there were some good performances in this film most notably those of Holter Graham as Deke and Pat Hingle as Hendershot. One thing King can be thankful for is that his film doesn’t ever tread into the so bad it’s good region.
 

Review- Battleship

Considering that the pedigree of films based on board games goes back at least to the 1980s and Clue, I was not one who was inclined to dislike Battleship based on that fact alone. Of course, if you are there are many upcoming game-based films to avoid. However, this is one that could’ve worked but didn’t.

Some have lumped this film in with things like Battle: Los Angeles. While I did like that film (quite a bit) I did not like this one. I will avoid a comparative analysis but I believe the three biggest differences are that the former film had better performances; a simpler, swifter story-line; and is more proficient technically.

This film means well in a lot of regards, but it spends so much time at the beginning trying to establish Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), his relationship (Both with older brother and girlfriend) and even creates a set-piece in part to establish a rivalry between him and Nagata (Tadanobu Asano). What’s wrong with that? Inherently, nothing. However, it’s too much time and it forestalls the inevitable, especially when the inevitable too gets drawn out.

The need to do all this expository work might be a condemnation of the Armageddon-alien attack motif if you think about it. It’s so tired that by the implication alone the motif no longer compels an audience to feel. It’s helpful that less motivation is needed for the aliens so more time is spent on the humans, but that time is misspent. The other issue is that less time is spent building character once the attack starts. The film likely works better with just vital pieces of information disseminated beforehand then allowing details to unfold during the battle.

The developing of character is an issue, but combine that with the fact that some performances are just inept and things get harder to handle. A lot of the the ineptitude is in casting. Rihanna may be many things: beautiful, a talented singer, dancer, but an actress is not amongst those things she is. She’s never believable or compelling and perhaps most annoyingly the script, direction and/or editing insists upon her. Her character’s commentary is required in nearly all situations and she’s deployed in any and all situations, if only to create drama about whether or not she can get back to her actual post. It’s the kind of role Michelle Rodriguez could play in her sleep, alas she does not, sadly.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I try to go into a film as close to a blank slate as I can. Therefore, I did not realize beforehand there were actual veterans in the cast. It became very evident quickly.The usage of veterans in the film while commendable produces mixed results. Clearly, as an American I understand and appreciate the efforts and sacrifices of the armed forces. However, this is a film about aliens and it’s plausibility is dubious so actors are needed to make it somewhat believable. As a gesture it’s fantastic, and the older veterans are hilarious when given a line of comic relief, the key is the roles are small in those cases, and they’re doing what they did; helping on the ship. The involvement of Gregory D. Gadson in a larger capacity is an issue because his role is big. Granted he doesn’t get a lot of help from the story or dialogue, but all the more reason to have someone who can try and wring something out of it.

The dialogue features its share of ill-timed lines such as “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” when things are already rather cataclysmic even in their bubble, and clichéd lines that you’ve heard in too many action and sci-fi movies.

Much of the battle is frankly rather uninteresting and not very dramatically conveyed. As a matter of fact, it’s in cameo moments later on that few of the compelling moments. Aside from that most of the other intrigue, if you can really call it that, comes when the film actually most closely resembles the board game. There’s a sequence where the ship has lost radar capabilities and they use water displacement data from buoys to gauge where the enemy is and try to time their launches to hit coordinates designated by letters and numbers.

The aliens are also an issue. Almost any film needs to create aliens that are vastly superior and are on the brink of annihilating the planet, but then some flaw inherent in them makes itself known that we exploit or become the beneficiaries of by sheer luck, this likely dates back to War of the World in novel form. Here there’s a scan interface, which we are privy to in alien POV and when biological entities are found they are not assaulted directly, yet battleships and skyscrapers full of thousands of people get blown up. Combine that with the fact that all indications are this is an invasion and attempt at conquest then this really doesn’t make sense. The technology also stinks, and they’re aliens! Example: Any one with any foreign substance on their body to aid them in a physical task (eyeglasses, prosthetic legs) is unrecognizable as man or machine to these aliens.

Now, I went on and on about the aliens in part because of the pace. I mentioned the length and the pace works hand-in-hand with it. This film gives me the time to wonder about these silly aliens that I’m not all that scared by, and I’m not all that intrigued by. The alien invasion plot is by no means foolproof, but this film tries too hard in some aspects and doesn’t try hard enough in others and the end result is that it just doesn’t work at all.

4/10