SDAFF 2015: THE RETURN OF FANT-ASIA, ZOMBIES AND MORE

16th Annual - SDAFF LogoWe’ve just finished Halloween, gained an extra hour on the proverbial space time continuum and El Nino is going to hit Southern California with inclemency worse than Sharknado 4. What more could possibly make So-Cal the place to be? As nature warns Pacific Coast residents to buy flood insurance, San Diego announces the arrival anon of  the 16th Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), which will flood the city with 130+ films from 20 Asiatic countries over a 10-day period, November 5-14. Of note, SDAFF is now considered to be the largest showcase of Asian cinema on the West Coast and this year’s festival is featuring some far out fantastical films.
Though Korean American Lee Ann Kim, the Pacific Arts Movement and SDAFF’s founder and executive director, has parlayed more of the SDAFF’s film programming into the hands of artistic director Brian Hu, in this time of more correct eating habits, she’s become somewhat of a cinematic vegetarian. Kim tranquilly analogizes, “My involvement in the festival is that there are so many ingredients in the salad and I’m basically the dressing…once it’s tossed, it tastes fantastic. I connect the dots and make sure that people have the right resources and right direction.”
The Assassin - 1One of this year’s directions is the heralded return of SDAFF’s love affair with fant-Asia films, the only festival this year that will deliver movies wrapped in a glorious array of genres that is sure to rock your soul, craze your brain and increase your blood pressure to 150/freaked out. To me, the ultimate in fant-Asia is cutting edge period piece, martial arts extravaganzas, and what better film is there to begin the fant-Asia aspect than with a movie in the running for an Academy Award for best foreign language picture, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin (2015). Other times this has happened for kung fu films is with King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966), Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). The difference being for Taiwanese auteur director Hou, is that he received the Best Director award at Cannes this year for Assassin, as accolade-giving critics worldwide have averred that it’s not your typical wu xia epic.
With Taiwanese roots and in his fifth year with SDAFF, Chinese American Hu gleefully elaborates, “In the past we’ve tried to show martial arts films that promote different kinds of artistry, like special effects, wire work, use of 3-D and of course fight choreography. So we can see how these filmmakers are thinking when it comes to this genre and how they can do something innovative with it.
The Assassin -2 -yin-niang“Audiences will watch this film because it has such a bad-ass title. Yet it’s a film that’s daring as it almost has no action, almost no dialogue, almost no story, but it has an incredible amount of visual beauty and powerful ways of developing characters through peeking at them. As you watch it, you get a feeling that this is probably what it looked like during the Tang Dynasty and what it was like to spend 10 minutes with someone from that era. Martial arts films are typically wall-to-wall action, but Assassin reminds us that action happens in the context of loneliness, sadness and social pressures that lead you into a dark corner. Hou says that assassins get in there really close, kill, then get out of there and that’s it. No posing. This is what makes this a beautiful film.”
Sounds to me like the fights are what we used to see in old Akira Kurosawa samurai films and in the Shaw Brothers auteur director Chu Yuan’s kung fu classics of the 1970s. If you’ve seen Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962), the big finale duel is one simple sword-slashing strike to his opponent’s heart.
Deadman InfernoYakuza vs. Zombies pretty much samuraizes what to expect with the Xtreme Japanese film Deadman Inferno or as it is called in Japanese, Z Island. Z stands for Zeni, a place where opposing families of yakuzas, promiscuous karate teen girls, a dorky doctor, a reggae-rocking angler and a castaway cop all attempt to Gilligan Island around running zombies…and in a nutshell, zat is zee problem.
Hu shares that it’s been a while since SDAFF has screened this kind of film mainly because the genre is clichéd, extremely misogynistic and they just kept piling up to the point that their novelty wore off. “However,” he joyfully reveals, “Deadman is hilarious and touching, because it’s about a family coming together because of zombies and they’re all forced to stand up for each other. In regard to this genre of films, there’s a lot of funny and random humor in Deadman and it’s also the film you’ve been waiting for. It’s not as ultra violent like past productions but it gives you all the kicks you need.”
TheWhisperingStar_mainWEB-1540x866According to Hu, Asian cinema isn’t always known for sci-fi fantasy film, so what happens is that fantasy now seeps into other genres. The Japanese film Whispering Star is about a delivery-robot who goes all UPS (Unidentified Person in Space) and browns from planet to planet dropping off packages for human clients. Roosting behind her intergalactic console like a delivery pigeon waiting to send messages via tweets, delivery fem-bot fantasizes about the world of humans, so close in parallel dementia, yet so far apart in space and far away in each others memories.
Then there’s the Korean romantic fantasy Beauty Inside that poses the scenario; imagine waking up every morning with a different face and then imagine falling in love with somebody, only to know that their first impression will be the last. It’s Groundhog Day (1993) meets 50 First Dates (2004). The Korean comedic fantasy Wonderful Nightmare spices with Heaven Can Wait (1978) gimchi when a city’s top attorney dies in an accident, but is given a second chance at life if she can trade places with an ordinary mother for one month.
20-USE-COVERWEB-1540x866Hu posits, “Whispering Star is really an art film that uses sci-fi to express it’s own idea of humanity. Beauty Inside is a Korean romantic comedy, which these days are a dime a dozen, but they use a fantasy scenario to liven up the genre. It’s a high concept, geek gimmicky set up and asks the question, if you’re a different face everyday, how can you go on a second date? Yet it’s such an achievement in direction because the director had to orchestrate so many performances as one character and make them seem like one character by so many different actors…man, woman, old and young…and then make us feel that we are watching the same person. It’s an incredible way of having us empathize with a certain perspective of love and how we as the audience spend time with a character that must ask herself, ‘Can I fall in love with someone that has a different face every day.’ To have us empathize with this kind of romantic possibility is so brilliant.”
Love and Peace copyKorea strikes again with a body switching Heaven can Wait (1978) thematic device in Wonderful Nightmare, with a Seoul twist where Gangnam Style is perhaps more popular that Chubby Checker’s The Twist. And speaking of music let’s not forget Japan’s Love and Peace. Hu chimes in, “This film converges on the rock operas of the 1970’s and ’80s…there’s something very sci-fi-ish with David Bowie, and this film evokes all of that with it’s Japanese sensibility of fraudness. Yes, it has talking turtles, cats and all kinds of other things that can talk too. It’s a lot of fun, it’s bonkers, and has great music. Director Sion Sono wrote the songs himself and it’s something he’s wanted to do for decades.”
Finally, three and a half fant-Asia films on the fringe. Directed by Vietnamese American Viet Nguyen, the comedy horror thriller Crush the Skull is about a couple in love that needs some fast cash and thus they break into a house that has no exit, no cell phone reception and no explanation for the torture pit they discover. Hu smilingly shares, “It’s seriously scary, wickedly off-kilter, and the funniest Asian American film in years.”
Atomic-Heart_10small-1500x866Don’t look now, but Iran explodes into the festival with director Ali Ahmadzade’s surreal loose comedy where fantasy and sci-fi seep into the film in a highly unusual way…it’s a blast but not a bomb. Atomic Heart is about two drunk party girls trying to drive home after a big night on the town who fail miserably as laced with Farsi trash talking, they have a zany run-in with a Saddam Hussein look-a-like but a saving run-out with a George Clooney doppleganger. It’s a culture that’s out of our minds and world, but a film that gets into our hearts and soul.
Beware the oleo…wait that’s butter…I mean the olio of the experimental, hybrid documentary of Daniel Hui’s Snakeskin that spreads contemporary and future Singapore like margarine on toast. With a queer eye from a 2066 cult member surviving guy that melds with a Malay cinema actress, the Shaw Brothers studios, and enforcers, and  exiles/ghosts, and activists…oh my, who are all ineptly but affably infantile, Snakeskin may rattle your thoughts and constrict your mind so much that I recommend you take an anti-hissss-tamine to the theater.
SWAP-770x433And finally the Filipino film Swap, which is not so much a fant-Asia film as it is a suspense thriller that is a must see for filmmakers looking for something uniquely edgy with cinematic savvy not often seen in film history. Hu explains, “This is a weird story. As it turns out, in one night I was watching two Filipino films both of which were single take movies. One wasn’t successful but with Swap, something new was  happening here. There’s been single take films but this one is full of flashbacks and dream sequences. You can only imagine how the actors are rapidly changing clothes off screen and getting sets ready on the run. The filmmakers will be at the festival and we all want to know how many takes did it take to get it right. The crazy thing is, Swap is based upon the director’s own history of being a kidnapped baby back in the ’80s.”
Fearless festival leader Kim adds, “How does this experience of being kidnapped as a child manifest it’s way into such a film? You have to say to yourself that these artists, don’t just do it for fun but do it because they have to do it…they have to do it.”
Deadman Inferno-2For information regarding films, dates and times, and how to get to their respective venues please visit http://festival.sdaff.org/2015/. One neat thing that SDAFF has, and it’s something that no other film festival in the world does, is that there will be an interactive booth from Saturday, November 7 through Monday, November 9, where filmgoers can get a free Chi Reading for their health and well being.
Kim’s final words, “Over the years, I’ve noticed that our audiences, like life-changing, inspiring and uplifting stories. Who doesn’t? They do well at the festival and that tells me that we have the right audience because our organization is not only here to entertain and inspire, but to also build a more passionate society, and part of that is to give inspiration, and to expose audiences and open their minds to more new experiences. I’ve been through multiple generations of people here at Pac-arts and I’m grateful for this work, and I believe I’m in the right place at the right time right now. The people that we have here are so special to me and this festival is our love letter to the community.”

CFQ chronicles the living dead!


For the first time ever, Cinefantastique has made a movie: CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD, co-produced with Mindset Films. As you might guess from the title, the new documentary chronicles the making of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). New interviews with filmmakers Russ Streiner and John Russo combine with vintage clips of George A. Romero provide a lively look back at the seminal film that unleashed the zombie apocalypse genre on an unsuspecting public.
Even if you think you know everything there is to know about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, you may be surprised at how much fun there is to be had watching CHRONICLES OF THE DEAD. If you don’t believe us, just check out the two embedded clips.
Russ Streiner discusses filming the Washington footage in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) in this clip from CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD, co-produced by Mindset Films and Cinefantastique.
CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD is available in the September Horror Block from Nerd Block. Each monthly horror block contains 4-6 frightening collectibles and a t-shirt – a $60 for a $19.99/month subscription.

Wes Craven dead at 76

Wes Craven, father of Freddy Krueger, has passed away. The writer-director helmed a variety of horror films, thrillers, and some non-genre work during a career that stretched from LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT in 1972 to MY SOUL TO TAKE in 2010. Other titles included THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, SHOCKER. After a career ebb, he bounced back in the late 1990s with the SCREAM trilogy.
His most seminal work, however, was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), which unleashed dream-demon Freddy Krueger on the world. The film launched a franchise that led to multiple sequels, a short-lived TV series, and a 2010 remake. Craven was at times critical of the direction in which the character was taken in later films; after the original film, he was directly involved only with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS and WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, a self-referential film, in which Craven appeared as himself, while his creation seemed hell-bent upon penetrating the “real” world.
Craven died of a brain cancer. He was 76. Variety has details.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – review

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation Cruise on motorcycle posterI don’t know whether you know this or not, but Tom Cruise is the most awesome guy on the planet. Not having met Cruise personally, I know this only because that’s what the plots of all his movies are about. This plot comes in two variations. The first one is straight-forward: Tom Cruise is totally awesome! The second variation is a little less direct: People don’t appreciate how awesome Tom Cruise is! (Think of Jerry Maguire, in which his girlfriend dumps him and he loses his job, just to prove that even though he’s totally awesome, we should still sympathize with him because the world treats him so unfairly.) The interesting thing about Cruise’s latest effort, insofar as there is anything interesting about Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, is that it conflates these two strains into a single if somewhat uncomfortable hybrid.
In Phase One of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Cruise plays the super-awesome Ethan Hunt once again, who hangs off airplanes when he’s not out-fighting, out-running, and out-maneuvering everyone else in the film. In Phase Two of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the CIA (in the person of Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin) wants to kill Hunt because, in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, Hunley doesn’t  like the Impossible Mission Force’s carte blanche to engage in unsupervised covert ops. Consequently, while Hunt is busy trying to save the world yet again, his own ungrateful country is trying to terminate him with extreme prejudice.
It’s really not fair for such an awesome dude to be treated this way, but the plot plays well for viewers who think that America should kick-ass on the rest of the world, and that any sort of restraint is the result of scheming forces that want to undermine the good guys.
Unfortunately, this amalgam, instead of being more than the sum of its parts, turns out to be somewhat less, because the two phases, like musical notes out of phase with each other, tend to cancel out rather than combine. The filmmakers can’t spend half the movie showing us how awesome Cruise is and then expect the audience to worry that the CIA might actually catch and execute him. Likewise, when the filmmakers spend the other half of the movie showing Cruise easily evading the entire CIA, they can’t expect us to have any doubts that he will have any trouble defeating the villain du jour.
Which is rather unfortunate, because Phase One of the film is supposedly built around the concept that Hunt may have finally met his match, which would have been interesting if we had believed it. Of course, we don’t – the two-phase approach makes it impossible to even pretend to believe it, and it certainly doesn’t help that the fiendish mastermind is too blind to notice (or at least do anything about) the rather obvious double-agent he is employing. But at the end of the day, none of this really matters, because the movie’s only message is: even when Hunt meets his match, he still wins, because no one can match Cruise’s awesomeness!
Before I forget, let me mention that the plot mechanics are constructed around a MacGuffin that Hunt must steal from a super-duper high-security facility. There is an explanation for what this MacGuffin is and how it got into the facility, which makes a kind of movie sense at least; however, the MacGuffin actually turns out to be something completely different from what we were told (you need twists in this kind of spy thriller),. This raises a question the film never bothers to address: if the explanation of the MacGuffin’s identify was false, does the explanation for how it got into the facility make sense anymore?
I suppose one could dismiss all of this as mere pretext, the necessary plot elements to justify exciting set-piece, of which there are several. Unfortunately, the best one comes up front, with Cruise hanging off the side of a plane taking off from the runway. It’s a bold, can-we-top-this? gambit that overshadows the rest of the film; the following fight scenes, suspense scenes, and chase scenes (including a pretty nifty one on a motorcycle) are all good – but not that good.
With Cruise’s awesomeness blazing throughout the film, there is not much room for anyone else to shine. It’s nice to see Ving Rhames again, but I’ve already forgotten what if anything he contributed. Jeremy Renner cements his position as Hollywood’s top also-ran, treading water while waiting for the producers to spin him off into a Bourne-like sequel. Rebecca Ferguson is supposed to be amazing, but she’s just okay – good enough to play second fiddle, but no threat to the star. Alec Baldwin somehow manages to make his CIA prick fun to watch even before his change of heart (he’s basically Ralph Fiennes from SKYFALL).
In spite of my qualms I did find Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation reasonably diverting, and the ending even managed to build up a fair share of tension (though why I should have doubted that Cruise’s awesomeness would prevail, I don’t know). Maybe my expectations were too high. Its predecessor,  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, supplied some actual thrills (for once, the danger seemed real rather than pretend), and I was expecting more of the same – an expectation seemingly confirmed by wildly enthusiastic reviews (93% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).
Sadly, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation winds up seeming a bit like someone who tells you he’s funny instead of telling you a joke. The film insistently harps on Cruise’s awesomeness, without fully achieving awesomeness itself.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (July 31, 2015). Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce, based on the television series by Bruce Geller. With: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Alec Bladwin.  In IMAX 3D. PG-13. 131 mins.

Jurassic World – review

jurassic-world-posterI am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.
Why? Because miracles do happen.
After two miserable sequels, the world had no reason to expect anything good from another Jurassic Park movie; in fact, we had every reason to expect we would be better off without one – and it’s not as if the trailers did much to assuage our feelings of apprehension that Jurassic World would be a heaping pile of dino-dung. Why the hell would anybody build a park on the site of the previous disaster, and who would be stupid enough to put up the insurance? What kind of morons would buy tickets to visit a place with that kind of horrible and undoubtedly very high-profile history? Are we really supposed to get excited over the sight of Chris Pratt using Raptors like a pack of hunting dogs to track some new mutant dinosaur? Doesn’t the whole thing feel desperate and ridiculous?
And yet, in spite of every ill omen, Jurassic World turns out to be the most enjoyable blockbuster in recent memory, easily eclipsing the moribund Marvel superhero franchise. How this miracle was achieved, I am not quite sure – perhaps through some bureaucratic oversight, Universal Pictures hired some people who actually wanted to make a good movie? Maybe someone realized that, in a marketplace saturated with special effects, just doing another formulaic dino-munch-athon was not going to cut it?
I suspect that both may be the case: some talented people realized the challenges they faced and devised clever ways to meet those challenges. In particular, Jurassic World works because it is almost as much about Jurassic World the film as it is about Jurassic World the tourist attraction. The premise is that audiences grow jaded with familiar wonders; this attention-deficit-disorder requires an ever increasing escalation of scale in order to continue selling tickets; unfortunately, escalation can lead to disastrous results for audiences, who end up being assaulted instead of entertained.
In essence, this is the situation in which the makers of Jurassic World found themselves: back in 1993, showing regular dinosaurs – with the added novelty of computer-generated imagery – was enough to wow viewers; twenty-two years later, the familiar beasts are old-hat, so upping the ante is necessary. Thus, is born the new Indominus Rex; fortunately, the ensuing disaster is visited upon the on-screen audience in the park, not the real live audience in the theatre, because the filmmakers seem completely aware of how far wrong this strategy could go.
After all, they had only to look at Jurassic Park III, which gave us the Spinosaurus. Remember him? No? I’m not surprised. Spinosaurus is the equivalent of a “new and improved” product that provides exactly what you got before but in new packaging. It’s just a T-Rex with a sail on its back, and though having it kill a T-Rex early in the film is supposed to strike terror in our hearts, we all realize that – regardless of whether it looks a little different and kills the monster from the previous films – a Spinosaurus can’t kill you any deader than a T-Rex, so in practical terms there is absolutely no difference.
At first, Indominous Rex seems to be Jurassic World’s Spinosaurus – just another bigger, badder T-Rex, no doubt intended to sell new tie-in merchandise. Fortunately, it turns out to be something much better than that. Indominous becomes a self-referential plot point, in which the filmmakers acknowledge what circumstances are forcing them to do (create a new dinosaur as a marketing gimmick) and then ruthlessly satirize the result while ultimately inviting us to root for the old-school dinosaurs we lovingly remember from the first film.
And if my prose makes this sound like a dry, intellectual exercise, I apologize, because the result is a kick-ass, high-octane adventure that perfectly manipulates its pop entertainment elements – which is to say that, whether or not Jurassic World features sophisticated drama and in-depth characters, it makes you feel involved with the on-screen events,so that, even if the scenario plays out in a way that might seem predictable of even trite when viewed with cynical, retroactive disdain, you will fall under the spell while the film unspools before your eyes – fearing the threat and rooting for the heroes to defeat it. Or to put it another way: the film can get away with roasting a lot of chestnuts, because it cooks them to perfection and makes the audience hungry for more.
Indominous Rex (the dialogue acknowledges the absurdity of the name, manufactured – like the creature itself – to sell tickets) is a freak of science, a gene-spliced hybrid that emerges as the modern equivalent of Frankenstein’s Monster – an abomination that has no right to exist in our world of naturally evolved organisms. Intelligent and ruthless, the creature kills for sport – a hint that pays off late in the film, revealing that Indominous is something more sinister than just a redesigned Tyrannosaur.
In short, Indominous is almost a dictionary definition of a monster, which beyond any doubt needs to be exterminated, and much of the triumph of Jurassic World is that the battle that ensues is not a Transformers-like exercise in empty visual flash; it’s a textbook example of the value of rooting interest: I cannot remember the last time I anxiously cheering for a character to be put down for good (unless it was the moment in Evil Dead II when Ash jabs his finger at the severed head of his undead girl friend and angrily intones, “You’re doing down!”).
Of course, this is no easy task; it requires some satisfying inter-species cooperation. Not only does Owen (Pratt) ride out with his Raptor-pack; Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) unleashes a useful ally at the climax. The sly joke is that these two dinosaurs were mortal enemies at the conclusion of the first Jurassic Park, but now they set aside their differences to help humanity defeat the monster.
In a weird kind of way, Jurassic World is the franchise’s equivalent of Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, in which Godzilla teams with former foes Mothra and Rodan to fend off the new threat. The difference is that, avoiding camp, Jurassic World sells the idea with a straight face conviction that precludes us from even questioning the convenience that a worthy opponent for Indominus just happened to be conveniently waiting in a pen to be unleashed for the climax. I certainly wasn’t going to question it, because it was sure as hell what I wanted to see happen.
To spread some credit around to the humans, Pratt and Howard and effortlessly appealing in their roles; yeah, they’re fairly typical movie characters, but they’re watchable and even believable. The two brothers at the center of the story are likable instead of annoying (and neither one defeats a Raptor with a kick from the parallel bars). It’s also nice that even some nominal bad guys – execs and scientists responsible for Indominous Rex – seem sort of like people, and sometimes even make a halfway decent attempt to do the right thing, as when new park owner Masrani (Irrfan Khan) pilots a helicopter attempting to shoot down Indominous – even though he is not fully qualified for the task. It’s always nice to see B.D. Wong (here as the dino-designer), and Vincent D’Onofrio does good work as the film’s one officially unredeemed asshole, who wants to use the Raptors as dog soldiers. Guess what happens to him?
But while you’re guessing, remember this: the joys of Jurassic World do not being and end with seeing an unlikable character get what he deserves (a la the lawyer in Jurassic Park). This movie wants to bring you back to a state of mind where a rampaging dinosaur would have you scared shirtless. (Did I just write that? Must have been a typo!) When Indominous escapes his pen, you are not chanting, “Go, go – Godzilla!” You are moaning, “Oh no! Oh hell! Everybody – run!” It’s a sign of truly impressive film-making when even the disposable “red shirt” character inspires more sympathy than blood-lust in an audience that has paid to see a creature with an appetite for destruction go on a wild rampage.
That rampage is rendered with excellent CGI that is not merely pretty; it also suggests a believable physicality – a sense of inertia and momentum seen in real object but lacking in most digital work, which tends to betray its virtual origins. The 3D aspect is reasonably well-used: true to form for recent 3D films, the effects tend to be less in-your-face than the old school “comin’ at ya” shots of the 1950s and 1970s, but the extra dimension helps convey the sense of gargantuan size, and there is one great shot of a pterodactyl trying to fly out of the screen to escape a predator.
Despite its wonders, not everything is perfect in Jurassic World. Some early scenes do not strike the intended note (an early aerial shot, backed by swelling music, implies a sense of grandeur that simply is not visually evident in what looks to us like a standard theme park layout). The over-reliance on digital dinosaurs robs the film of the satisfying blend of computer and mechanical effects that worked so well in Jurassic Park, providing a live-action texture and immediacy that yielded a greater sense of human-saurian interaction. And finally, near the end, Jurassic World goes a little bit “Ray Harryhausen” on us, in a bad way.
To my surprise, I had bought into the Raptor scenario up till then, which had Owen interacting with the predators like a tamer dealing with lions: yes, he could get them to obey commands, but that didn’t mean he would turn his back on them. Still, there was some sense of a bond, insofar as Owen was the “alpha” member of the group, the pack leader upon whom the others had imprinted when they were born. This bond is tested, strained, broken, and possibly repaired in the film’s third act, which sees shifting alliances that lead to some shuddery plot twists. At the end of the day, certain characters make a decision to stand not with their biological kin but with their adoptive relative – even at risk to their own lives. And for too long during this sequence, Owen stands there like one of those slack-jawed heroes in an old Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monsterfest, watching while a friendly creature does his fighting for him. As much as I was rooting for Indominous Rex to take his well deserved fall, I was practically yelling at the screen for Owen to get off the sidelines and get some skin in the game – you don’t just stand and watch while your brothers-in-arms become dino-chow.
It’s ironic that, in a film which tries to add a glint of humanity to the usual blockbuster formula, the heroes turn out to be not so much the humans as the cold-blooded reptiles. In a weird kind of way, despite my misgivings, I’m okay with that. Because it’s nice to see old enemies united against a common foe; T-Rex is still the Lizard King, and like the end of Jurassic Park, the climax of Jurassic World takes you back – mentally, at least – to a time When Dinosaurs Rules the Earth.
Jurassic World (June 12, 2015). Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly, from a story by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Michael Crichton. Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Jimmy Fallon. PG-13. In IMAX 3D.

San Andreas – review

San_Andreas_posterOne certainly cannot deny that San Andreas delivers on the promise inherent in its title: it really is  a feature-length road trip up the San Andreas fault, which just happens to be periodically shaking California to pieces along the way. That may not sound like much of a plot, but the film vastly improves upon the approach of its obvious disaster-era progenitor, Earthquake (1974),  which never adequately answered the question: after two minutes of tremors, what can we do for the rest of the movie except dig people out of the rubble? Propelled by a continuing series of quakes spread out over the entire state, San Andreas is all forward momentum and non-stop action, but with enough narrative focus to avoid letting the calamity totally engulf the picture.

Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a rescue-copter pilot going through a divorce from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino), whose new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) does not look like an ex-wrestler, meaning he cannot possibly be man enough to replace Ray. Fortunately for Ray, two science guys, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) and Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) have figured out that a humongous quake is about to destroy California, which will give Ray a chance to prove that Emma should stay with him. This is actually achieved rather quickly, when he whisks her off a collapsing rooftop in downtown Los Angeles; the plot complication, such as it is, arises from the fact that Ray and Emma’s daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario, introduced to us in a flattering poolside bikini shot, because obviously we can’t care what happens to her unless she’s hot) is in San Francisco with Daniel. So away go Ray and Emma on their rescue mission, first in Ray’s copter, then a stolen vehicle, then a stolen boat.

The notion that Ray, a professional rescue worker, is abandoning his post in an emergency is never acknowledged let alone questioned, because movies are all about family these days – at least, that’s an easy way to generate a little rooting interest. It also goes without saying that using the company copter for your personal needs and stealing someone else’s car is okay as long as you’re the protagonist, because – hey, it’s only a movie!

Strangely, despite these questionable narrative leaps, San Andreas never completely matriculates into the “Dumb Movie” school of filmmaking; the scenario manages to maintain at least a small illusion of credibility, asking us to engage with the characters as if they are people in genuine peril, not merely pawns in an empty spectacle. It’s a sign of what’s right in the film that when one of the scientists dies on a collapsing bridge, the sequence is played as a tragedy, not an aint-it-cool moment of awesome special effects.

Likewise, San Andreas mimics the reserved (a relative term, I know) approach to vast destruction seen in Godzilla (2014): much of the action is shown from the point of view of the distraught characters instead of lovingly photographed like epic disaster porn. Although San Andreas is filled with collapsing buildings, tidal waves, fires, and explosions, not all of these scenes are show-stopping set-pieces; often they are glimpsed on the fly as Ray and Emma race by – relegated to sideshow status while the film maintains focus on the their quest to save Blake. It’s almost as if the filmmakers thought they were making a real movie in which we cared more about the characters than the quake.

In fact, San Andreas lingers on the verge of being something a little bit better than a by-the-numbers blockbuster. In old school disaster movies, characters tended to be clearly divided into heroes, victims, and villains. Ray is clearly the archetypal disaster movie hero; however, it’s a nice touch that Blake, though serving the function of victim in need of rescue, does not sit around waiting for her brave daddy to arrive; she takes action, seeking higher ground, instead of blindly following the panicked crowds. Sadly, this element gets a bit jumbled; with all the chaos of plans gone awry, it’s not entirely clear whether Blake’s actions will improve or diminish Ray’s chances of getting to her in time.

This is not the film’s only squandered opportunity to better itself. San Andreas initially avoids offering a typical disaster-movie villain.  These take one of two forms: either they are responsible for the disaster, or they irresponsible in the way they save themselves at the expense of everyone else. The obvious candidate here is Daniel, who is – somewhat surprisingly – presented as a halfway decent guy. Yes, he abandons Blake in a crisis, but not out of self-interest; he really seems to be in a complete state of shock.  Unfortunately, as the shock wears off, so does the film’s sympathy for him, morphing the character into a traditional prick who pushes others out of the way to save himself, until his own efforts ironically put him in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Which I guess means that the film is happy to revert to clichés. Ray, Emma, Blake, and a couple of British immigrant Blake found along the way are okay, which means it’s a happy ending all around on the big screen, in spite of presumably millions of corpses buried beneath debris from one end of the coast to the next. Presumably, Ray and Emma will live happily ever after, now that she sees how useful Ray is during a crisis – though how that’s going to sustain a relationship during those long periods of time when California isn’t quaking itself into a pile of rubble, remains unclear. Hopefully, Giamatti’s science guy can spot another earthquake on the near horizon.

San Andreas ( May 29, 2015). Directed by Brad Peyton. Written by Carlton Cuse, from a story by Andre Fabrizio & Jeremy Passmore. Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue. PG-13. In IMAX 3D.

Inside Out – review

Inside Out Poster Vertical

Looks good only in comparison to its disappinting predecessors

Inside Out is stunning. Unfortunately, what is stunning is not the film itself but the perceptual phenomenon surrounding it: Pixar Animation’s previous troika of Cars 2Brave, and Monsters University was so abysmally disappointing that, by comparison, the simple mediocrity of Inside Out has fooled critics and audiences into believing that they were seeing a brilliant return to form. I think James Walcott dubbed this the “Bob Dylan Phenomenon”: after years of disappointing work, any halfway decent album is hailed as “his best since Blood on the Tracks.” In the case of Inside Out, we might call the film Pixar’s best since Toy Story 3, but even that comparison would be praise too high; this is definitely second-tier Pixar, more on par with A Bug’s Life – another film that had an amusing premise but an unimaginative execution, gilded with gorgeous computer graphics.

In case, you haven’t heard, most of Inside Out takes place inside the head of Riley, a young girl undergoing a traumatic move to a new home. Well, not really traumatic – more like stressful – but that’s not going to stop the emotions living inside her head – Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear – from turning Riley’s relatively prosaic predicament into the premise for a blockbuster movie, including an epic journey replete with insane action sequences.

In order to do this, the scenario contrives a set of rules for the way things work inside Riley’s head; then of course something goes wrong, and in order to set it right, Joy and Sadness set off to fix the problem. Along the way, lots of stuff happens because the script says so and because we need to fill 90 minutes somehow or other, and eventually we – or at least, Joy – learns a big lesson, which is that Sadness is also important to Riley’s mental well-being.

Strangely, Joy learns this less through a series of flashbacks to events that should have taught her the lesson years ago; the only reason any of this is a “surprise” to us is that, being flashbacks, the material was previously unseen by the audience. Why what the audience knows should matter to Joy’s understanding of Riley’s psyche is a mystery the film does not explore.

Nor does Inside Out explore why the emotions inside Riley’s head have emotions of their own (perhaps in some sort of infinite regression they themselves have emotions living inside their heads?). In any case, their personalities are not as vivid as one would expect from characters so clearly defined by a single trait. The lone exception here is Anger, thanks in large part to the vocal performance of Lewis Black (whose outrage in response to an oddball San Francisco variant on pizza provides the film’s biggest laugh).

All of this would be neither here nor there if the film had used its conceit to string together some amusing set pieces and comedy, but there is little actual joy in the film. The arbitrary nature of the difficulties faced ruins any genuine suspense (we’re in a mental landscape, yet for some reason physical constraints such as Gravity and Momentum must be observed). No doubt the filmmakers were afraid of turning Inside Out into a surreal head trip that might alienate parents taking their children to see it.

There are a few moments when the film briefly comes to life, including a very poignant one when Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend shuffles off into the existential void for good. Other than that, Inside Out is a sadly tedious effort, buoyed only by the craftsmanship employed by the computer-animators, working in 3D to create some beautiful imaginary landscapes that really deserve to have something more interesting happening in them.

How Inside Out managed to overcome its rather obvious shortcoming to become both a box office blockbuster and a critical darling is certainly a mystery. My guess is that we’re seeing a combination of willful wish fulfillment and cognitive dissonance. In the wake of its disappointing predecessors, to acknowledge the actual quality of Inside Out would be to acknowledge a recent track record indicating that Pixar’s Golden Era may be a thing of the past. Well, at least we have The Incredibles 2 looming on the horizon, so there’s still hope.

Lava Pixar short subjectIn theatres, Inside Out is preceded by the Pixar short subject Lava, which is about a lonely boy volcano hoping to meet a girl volcano. Essentially a music video, Lava‘s idea of wit is to substitute the word “lava” for “love” in the lyrics. The result is hokey and cornball, but the attempt to make the girl volcano attractive – even though she has no nose and only slits for eyes and mouth – is bizarre enough to be memorable if not truly pleasant.

Inside Out and Lava are currently in release nationwide.

Inside Out (June 19, 2015). Directed by Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen. Written by Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley and Peter Docter, with additional dialogue by Amy Poehler & Bill Hader. Voices: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn DIas, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Frank Oz. Rated PG.

Dark Was the Night – review

A Mystery for the Ages: Why is DARK WAS THE NIGHT not getting the amount of praise heaped on indie horror darlings such as THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS?

dark_was_the_nightInto the Woods we go…though not on some revisionist, musical journey. These woods are far from the fairy tale forests of Stephen Sondheim; they are even farther from the simplistic monster movie territory promised by the posters (“Evil’s roots run deep”). Presented in images crisp and clear, these woods are not exactly dark when we first see them, but rather faded. This look initially seems like a simple visual conceit for a “revenge of nature” horror flick – we see a logging company knocking down trees and think, “Aha, they’re destroying the greenery, and there’s no green in the photography” – however, it turns out to be an indicator of something more subtle and profound.
After the loggers get what they deserve (at the hands or claws of an unseen something), we meet Paul Shields (Kevin Durand), and the pain in his eyes instantly tells us – before we know anything else about him – that there is some damage deep inside. The sheriff in a small logging town, Paul simply wants to go about his routine and do his job, but in an amusing turn-about on Columbo’s “just one more thing, sir,” the officer of the law is the one repeatedly forced to continue conversations he would rather terminate, as the locals (his soon-to-be ex-wife, his pastor, his deputy) strive to get him to open up about the tragedy haunting him. The exact nature of that tragedy is revealed incrementally, but long before the details come out, the impact on Shields is clear, etched in every expression, which strives but never achieves an affectless quality meant to insulate him from the pain that his friends want him to confront. Which soon brings us to the realization that the cold, colorless photography does not symbolize the destruction of nature; instead, it represents that state of Paul’s soul, alive but drained of vitality, unable to see or even seek the vibrant hues that should be all around him. Yes, this is a horror movie – and a good one – but its tension does not derive primarily from the mechanics of suspense; far more than the more highly lauded The Babadook, Dark Was The Night wants to make you feel its character’s pain.
With its attention on the drama, Dark Was The Night is in no hurry to throw monster stuff at the audience; the pacing is deliberate but never slow, carefully working the old-fashioned approach of an extended build-up so that the crescendo, when it comes, is not just empty noise but a genuinely involving climax. In a way, the film is a mini-miracle, holding attention with a protagonist who is trying to remain passive and avoid confrontation: in a scene that could serve as a synecdoche for the whole film, a potential barroom fight (the local yokel berates the sheriff not only for not doing his job but also for failing to protect his family – cutting a little too close to Shield’s personal tragedy) is nipped in the bud before it can serve as an excuse for a gratuitous brawl. Although one can easily imagine Michael Bay lamenting, “They missed a real opportunity there,” the scene is not anti-climactic; instead, its unresolved nature adds more powder to the keg we all know is eventually going to explode.
Along the way, Dark Was The Night is peppered with gradually escalating incidents that ratchet the tension on an almost subliminal level: you are so focused on the characters, that you almost do not realize the way the film is sucking you in. After the logging incident, with its brief flashes of severed limbs, the film mostly eschews graphic horror in favor suggestions: shadows in the night, silhouettes in the woods, missing pets, mysterious tracks through town, unseasonal animal migrations, savaged carcasses left on a road, bodies of murdered hunters hung in trees, and eventually a pair of hideous feet that leave us guessing as to the creature’s whole appearance, which – in a welcome bit of restraint – will not be revealed until the end.
The effect is very similar to what M.Night Shyamalan achieved back when he knew what he was doing, circa Signs (2002). In fact, Dark Was The Night is a virtual remake. Again we have the isolated setting; the protagonist emotionally devastated by family tragedy; the younger male co-lead (in this case a deputy instead of a brother) trying to keep up the faith; and the confrontation with uncanny horror that forces our hero to snap out of his depression to protect kith and kin.
The difference is that, though set in a small town where church attendance – or, in this case, non-attendance – is clearly a big deal, Dark Was The Night is not particularly interested in showcasing a a “road to Damascus” moment for Paul; his character arc is instead based on his surname: having failed to protect a family member in the back story, he will (with a little help) become the shield that saves the town, or dies trying.
Yet one cannot help feeling that a kind of redemption is taking place. When Paul’s new deputy (Lukas Hass), a recent transplant from New York, speculates that his presence is perhaps part of a grand plan (“maybe I was sent here to protect you… or you’r here to protect me”), we see the derisive disbelief in Paul’s eyes, but (unlike Mel Gibson’s character in Signs), he is too reserved to express open contempt. The film then goes on to vindicate the deputy’s sentiment, if not his belief in divine intervention, when the two face the threat side-by-side at the climax, which takes place inside the town church, ostensibly because Paul considers it the safest place to defend, but which adds a symbolic overlay whether Paul likes it or not.
The exact nature of the threat is unclear, which makes it more believable. There is no Johnny Expaliner character to tell us exactly what the monster is and how to kill it, with the sort of firm conviction based on unconfirmed legends that exists only in the horror genre. Yes, the local bartender (Nick Damici) tells Shawnee tales of a mythical creature that’s haunted the forest for generations, but in a nice touch, even he does not fully believe the stories, though he does lock his door at night, just to be safe. In a similar way, Deputy Saunders is poised on the cusp of belief – not convinced yet not dismissive – making the gradual transition easier for the audience to believe, especially when mounting evidence eventually provokes Paul to theorize that the logging project has displaced the creatures, forcing them closer to town and hence leading to numerous close encounters with something that previously kept its distance. This adds a touch of credibility, almost of sympathy, to the creature, who human victims tend to be invading its territory (first loggers, then hunters).
After teasing the audience for 90 minutes, eventually the filmmakers have to deliver. Only here does the film fall short of its aspirations – or, rather, resets its aspirations considerably lower. The final revelation of the creature is a major disappointment, not only because of the cartoony CGI but also because of the ill-conceived design: the reptilian appearance might be appropriate in a Florida swamp but not in a snow-bound forest. Worse yet, instead of ending when it should, Dark Was The Night adds a cornball twist, which may have intended to set up a sequel but instead merely screams, “This is just a dumb monster movie after all!”
Fortunately, these final faltering moments cannot destroy the film’s overall effectiveness, which is guaranteed to hold you spellbound with a level of sincerity too seldom seen in the genre. The entire cast, from the leads all the way down to the bit parts, are as committed – and probably more convincing – than any Oscar-bait ensemble. It’s a sign of what’s right with the film that Bianca Kajlich, as Paul’s wife, is appealing and attractive but not too glamorous to be believable in this setting; and even though the story relegates her to the sidelines (like a typical female in a monster movie), her pain and her concern for Paul still register. Durand sells his character to us with complete conviction from start to finish – ironically revealing the soul of a character who is trying desperately to remain hidden in his protective cocoon.. Even the presence of Lukas Haas – which seems like a desperate low-budget attempt to get some kind of name into the cast – turns out to be a master stroke: instead of thinking, “Oh look, the kid from Witness, all grown up:’ the audience realizes, “He’s really good.”
It certainly helps that characters are not the usual gang of stereotypes, or if they come close, at least they don’t have signs plastered on their foreheads reading, “Kill me – I’m The Film’s Official Asshole.” Instead, the script works satisfying twists on expectations, with personal animosity dissolving in the face of common danger, creating a sense of humanity that yields near-unbearable suspense despite a relatively low body-count. This is not a film you watch to enjoy seeing the dumb-asses dispatched in gruesome ways; you watch it desperately hoping that everyone will survive.
dark_was_the_nightDark Was The Night delivers on genre expectations with craftsmanship and artistry worthy of a wide theatrical release and an embrace by horror fans; it enhances those virtues with an eye for character and and careful storytelling, which should appeal to a broader audience. The only thing the film “lacks” (outside of a worthy ending) is the sort of artistic pretension or overt thematic conceit that critics can identify as elevating a horror effort above its genre. If viewers are left with one enduring mystery, it is not the exact phylum, genus, and species of its monster; it is this: Why is Dark Was The Night not as highly lauded as indie horror darlings The Babadook and It Follows?
Dark Was The Night is currently playing an exclusive engagement at the Universal Citywalk AMC 19. The film is also available through iTunes, Amazon Instant View, and Vudu.
Dark Was the Night (copyright 2015; released July 21, 2015 – simultaneous theatrical and streaming). Directed by Jack Heller. Written by Tyler Hisel. Cast: Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Bianca Kajlich, Steve Agee, Nick Damici.

PETER CUSHING: A Tribute to Christopher Lee

The ninth issue of Cinefantastique featured a career article devoted to Christopher Lee, way back in the fall of 1973. Peter Cushing wrote this heartfelt introduction for his good friend, although they were only to make three more films together. Luckily Ted Newsome brought them together one last time for his documentary on Hammer films, Flesh and Blood, shortly before Mr. Cushing died in 1994.
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee sharing a joke on the set of THE GORGON
In May 1972 Christopher Lee and I made a psychological thriller entitled Nothing But the Night. It was our 18th film together, a partnership spanning some fifteen years. It was fitting that this “Coming of Age Anniversary” should be celebrated by the first film under his own banner—Charlemagne Productions, Ltd.
One of the greatest compliments any actor can be paid is to hear people say, “It all looks so easy.” It is not.
To reach this stage in his career and maintain his position and enormous popularity has cost him much in hard work, dogged determination, resolution and sheer drive, sometimes in the face of ruthless competition and misunderstandings, apart from facing and learning all the technical difficulties presented in the art of film acting—yet still making it look “all too easy.” The art which conceals art.
Of commanding stature (some 6 foot, 4 inches tall), he uses his physical presence to great advantage, moving with grace and authority. Some are awed when first meeting him in person, but they would do well to know that beneath this outward aloofness and dignity lies a very human being: sensitive, warm, and oft times suffering from nerves which he goes to great lengths to conceal.
Among his accomplishment—perhaps unknown to his public—he is a Greek scholar, he possesses a magnificent bass singing voice, a wonderful knack for impersonation, has command of at least six languages, is an expert swordsman and a superb amateur golfer. Couple all this with a delicious sense of humor and wit—plus a deep personal kindness—then you will be getting somewhat closer to the real personality of this truly remarkable man.
He holds strong views about the business in general and, in particular about the misuse of the word “horror” as applied to some of his films, rightly preferring the more subtle and correct term “fantasy,” for that, indeed, is what they are.
Unstintingly, Christopher gives his public one hundred percent of himself and his talent, but full use has not yet been made of his range. Knowing him as I do, it will not remain hidden under a bushel forever.
I am privileged to count him as a dear friend as well as a valued and respected professional colleague.
PETER CUSHING
Whitstable, 1973