'80s slasher films, action films, April Fool's Day, documentaries, documentary, dramedy, Dziga Vertov, Exiled, experimental film, fan conventions, films, Friends with Kids, gangster films, Hong Kong films, horror films, Jason Statham, Johnnie To, Lebowski Fest, Man with a Movie Camera, Redemption, rom-rom, Russian film, slasher films, Takeshi Kitano, The Achievers, The Big Lebowski
Welcome to our first Saturday edition of The VHS Graveyard. As a movie fanatic, weekends are my go-to days for mass viewings. I usually like to wake up early, get a few foreign or silent films in to kick-start everything and then proceed to plow my way through my “must-see” list for the day. This Saturday, I was able to take in six films: not quite my best tally but not too shabby. This, then, is how the day progressed:
Johnnie To is often described by waggish critics as being the “Hong Kong Jerry Bruckheimer.” This, to be fair, isn’t completely shy of the truth but is unnecessarily reductive. In all honesty, Bruckheimer wishes that he had the wide-ranging scope of To’s films – action, gangster, drama, comedy…he’ll take on pretty much any genre and give it his customary sheen.
When To’s gangster films are good, they’re very good, reminding me of flashier versions of Takeshi Kitano’s iconic ’90s-era gangster films like Sonatine and Boiling Point. Exiled ends up being quite good, although it’s also a rather strange duck. Posited as an intermingling of the gangster and spaghetti Western genres, Exiled is high on style but rather light on substance. We follow a close-knit group of hitmen as they move from job to job, ending with a double-cross that sees them on the run from an angry mob boss.
While the storyline itself can be unnecessarily cluttered (there were a few times when I lost track of the cross/double-crossing and was utterly in the dark), there is no denying the power of the action and imagery. To manages to replicate the essential feel of a spaghetti western without simply cramming in the various pieces of a gangster film. The result is a hybrid that manages to take the best aspects of both (the elegiac pace and dry-as-dust soundtrack of the western, the kinetic Technicolor atmosphere and frenzied pace of the Hong Kong bullet ballet) and make something wholly interesting. The film isn’t perfect but, when it works (an amazingly framed shoot-out in a scuzzy doctor’s apartment would be the highlight in any of a hundred other films), it’s pretty unforgettable. Throw in some very nicely handled thoughts on friendship and we’ve got something well worth seeing.
As a former film student, I’ve always had a soft spot for Russian pioneer Dziga Vertov. One of the true forefathers of cinema, Vertov was constantly experimenting with the very fabric of cinema even in its earliest days. I’d managed to miss seeing Man with a Movie Camera up until now but I’m glad to have finally rectified that situation.
Ostensibly, Man with a Movie Camera is just what the title says: a man (with a movie camera) rushes around 1920s-era Russia and captures every aspect of society. Literally. The camera catches life and death (a birth and a funeral); love and sorrow (a wedding and folks signing divorce papers at a court-house); rich and poor (the well-to-do in elegant finery and filthy hobos in the street). There is no dialogue and no intertitles, even though the film is, technically, a silent film. Here, Vertov was interested in challenging the very idea of narrative filmmaking, birthing a form of documentary realism that is still very evident today.
There’s a playful sense of surrealism to much of the film, particularly in scenes where the cameraman looms Godzilla-sized over the city or films from inside a full glass of beer. Stop-motion (a self-moving camera and animate plate of crawfish are particular highlights) helps to heighten this sense of “realistic unreality.” More than anything, however, possibly due to the documentary film-style and lack of intertitles, Man with a Movie Camera feels very current and nothing like what we might presume a silent film from 1929 to feel like. The ending even features the cameraman racing around the streets and is filmed like an action sequence, complete with pulse-pounding score.
Ah, ’80s slasher films…so much variety, so many clones. April Fool’s Day has the virtue of being one of the more notorious ’80s slashers for one very important reason, a reason that I won’t spoil for you. Suffice to say, however, that you will feel cheated by this film’s ending.
A group of obnoxious, stuck-up college kids (plus the obligatory nice hick and square British woman) head to a strange friend’s secluded mansion for some good ol’ fashioned fun. The friend is named Muffy and she may or may not be crazy: she also may or may not be trying to kill everyone one by one.
The “twist” is genuinely awful, although it does automatically remind one of the twist in House of the Long Shadows. That may have not been a great film, either, but it had the benefit of featuring Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. All that April Fool’s Day has going for it is some okay gore, cheesy acting and that forehead-smacking ending.
Hardcore fans of anything are, by definition, kind of nuts. Fan, after all, is a shortened form of fanatic. Hardcore fans of particular films or franchises, however, can give a whole new meaning to the term. Try and have a conversation about anything Star Wars or Star Trek-related with a hardcore fan of either and see how fun that is.
Since fans are kind of kooky, a documentary about hardcore fans of the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” and the Lebowski Fest that they attend yearly must be equally kooky, right? Oh boy, yes.
For the most part, The Achievers is an entertaining but slight (very, very slight) examination of Lebowski Fest. For the most part, you get the exact same level of fandom/insight from most of these folks that you would from any other group at Comic-con, swapping the term “Jedi” for the term “Dude.” There’s one really nice quote from one attendee where he states that, “It would be cool if having just thing in common was enough.” Wouldn’t this be nice, indeed? Unfortunately, save for the parts where we’re introduced to the actual people who inspired the characters in The Big Lebowski (the actual Dude is nothing like I expected…Walter is EXACTLY what I expected), there’s not much of use here. As my long-suffering wife perfectly put it: “Can’t anybody just like something?”
Promoted as an ensemble comedy but really more of a traditional two-character-driven rom-dramedy, Friends with Kids is a decidedly middle-of-the-road experience. For the most part, the performances were quite good, with Jon Hamm and Maya Rudolph being personal favorites. In the end, however, there’s something rather disingenuous about the whole thing.
Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt play best friends who are part of a close-knit group with two other couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd, Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig). When the other couples begin to have kids, the platonic friends feel left out and devise a plan to have a baby of their own: they’ll raise it together, allowing each other to invest maximum time in finding a significant other who will be happy to raise the child as their own. Get it? Yeah, it’s a bit harebrained, to say the least, but makes a bit more sense in practice than on paper. Naturally, complications ensue, the two friends fall for each other and raising a baby is hard work, ya know?
As I stated earlier, this is a perfectly pleasant, enjoyable film with (at least for me) one glaring exception: Jennifer Westfeldt. Nothing against her personally, but her character came across as a complete tonal mess. I would have given anything to have either Rudolph or Wiig take that role but Westfeldt managed to play her character with such complete blankness that I never felt for her. It was like watching a Shakespearian actor attempting to converse with a Juggalo – lots of words coming out but no connection being made.
I went in to this with no small measure of enthusiasm. I like Jason Statham just fine but critics everywhere (including Badass Digest, one of my go-to blogs) had been trumpeting this as something special: not just another Statham action film but an honest-to-god movie! How could I not be eager?
In reality? This is just another Jason Statham action film. There are some attempts at a broader significance (he was in the Iraq War and did terrible things…because it was a terrible place…and now he’ll never forget…or forgive…himself) and the action sequences were actually framed in the real world, versus something like Crank. Unfortunately, however, there just wasn’t much of interest going on around it.
The basic plot is this: Statham’s girlfriend is killed and he goes on a long, convoluted quest for revenge. In between, he beats some people up, kills a few others and romances a nun. The film has a look that recalls Only God Forgives in certain ways (check out the neon-color scheme for the above poster and tell me that doesn’t look familiar) and the vibe is decidedly downcast. In the end, however, this really is just another Statham flick: no better or worse, despite what some critics seemed to think.