Monday, January 23, 2012

Last Week's Movies #48

I watch so many movies that my movie memory is started to overload. So I've decided to start doing short reviews for each film I've watched during the week. Often they'll be movies I'm viewing for the first time, but some may be favourites that are getting their latest re-watch.

(Japan, 1998, Takashi Miike)
It's pretty hard to tell that Andromedia is directed by Takashi Miike. It features a few of his regulars, but other than that, there's no other indicators that I could see. That said, Andromedia is still quite entertaining, in the same way a cheesy Australian kid's show from the mid-90s is. Despite being a Japanese feature film, this film shares a lot in common with mediocre Australian television for children - the villains in particular look like they crawled out of ABC for Kids. Andromedia's story is also well suited to kid's telly (ignoring the bloodied gunshot wounds): a girl is killed so her dad recreates a perfect computerised version of her, a variety of villains want to "kidnap" her and her boyfriend tries to protect her. Andromedia is little more than a vehicle for two J-Pop bands - Speed, an all girl band (the leader of the group takes on the role of the computerised Mai), and Da Pump, a classic late-90s boy band. Its pop ties can either be seen as the film's greatest asset or its greatest hindrance. Either way, there's no escaping them.  

The performances from the pop stars are not exactly horrible, but the characters that Da Pump play are entirely useless. The most they contribute is a song that interrupts the story. Yes, Andromedia takes a break for a music video that, at first, appears to only involve Da Pump as we cut between their performance and a montage of the film's characters, but then the camera pulls out to reveal our two leads watching Da Pump as they perform on stage. Surreal, to say the least. It doesn't (or does, depending on your taste) help that it occurs right after the characters Da Pump play (are they just Da Pump?) are involved in an explosive car crash. Was their weird little performance a moment of triumph after surviving the crash? Who knows. No matter what its reason, the moment the song started up, I was in absolute hysterics. It is terrible, but completely amazing.

Andromedia's effects are also firmly wedged in the 1990s television arena, which I found quite endearing. I also had to respect the film's occasional moments of violence. The violence is entirely inappropriate against the backdrop of a gentle and silly story, and, as you'd probably know if you've ever read my reviews, I like jarring inappropriateness. The film also deserves a look for the appearance of Christopher Doyle (yes, renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle) who is the film's goofy leading villain. Doyle is a horrid actor, and his performance is like watching a train wreck. But more importantly, what the hell is Doyle doing in this movie? He's a cinematographer, not an actor. Or am I missing something? The casting director for Andromedia certainly deserves an award for completely ruining my brain. Pop stars and Christopher Doyle - wow. Outside of its so-bad-it's-good qualities, Andromedia is, while a bit long, quite acceptable as a relatively decent film for teenagers (or at least teenagers of the late 90s). The story is cheesy, but comprehensible, and some of the characters are fairly engaging. Andromedia is, of course, far from Miike's best work, but fans should definitely check this out purely as a curiosity item.          

Dead Girl Walking
aka Za horâ kaiki gekijô: Kaiki! Shinin shôjo
(Japan, 2004, Kôji Shiraishi & Kazuhiro Yokoyama)
I left this entry in the Hideshi Hino's Theater of Horror series to last, because I'd heard bad things about it and I'd never read the story by Hino. Surprisingly though, Dead Girl Walking is actually pretty good. It's not the best in the series, but it's certainly far from the worst. Dead Girl Walking is the very Hino-esque tale of a girl that dies, but remains a walking, and entirely conscious, corpse. Her family attempt to remove her from the house after her rotten stench becomes unbearable. In a moment of self-defense, she winds up puncturing her mother's eye. Her mother then, wildly swinging a knife with blood spraying from her eye, accidentally kills the dead girl's younger sister. The dead girl heads off to the outside world and finds that she runs into even more trouble with both friends and strangers. Dead Girl Walking is cheap. It's full of sub-par effects - both digital and practical - and does not hide its shot-on-DV looks. It has the appearance of a student film from the early 2000s. Yet somehow, it kind of works, and it's quite entertaining and appropriately grim. The effects - while cheap - are fun and excessive. We get geysers of blood and body parts galore. The story is effective and - even though I haven't read the original story - is very much in tune with Hino's work. I won't be returning to this one any time soon, but still, it is a fine effort.

(USA, 1995, Robert Rodriguez)
It's funny how Rodriguez regressed as a filmmaker. The man's best film is probably his first and from 2000 onwards, he's made almost nothing but garbage. I'm not his biggest fan, but I respect what he can do with a film when he puts an effort in. Desperado is one of his few great films. This is Rodriguez before his obsession with making films on the cheap encompassed him, Rodriguez before he tried his hand at faux-Grindhouse films (Grindhouse itself, I love - even though Planet Terror was a bit average - Machete on the other hand...) and, most importantly, Rodriguez before Spy Kids. There's no awful digital video or painful CGI, just the fun, over the top action that Rodriguez does so well. Desperado has an exciting cast (with lots of great cameos thrown in), a great soundtrack and score and enough wild camerawork to fit into two Raimi films. I wish Rodriguez still made them like this.    

Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion
aka Gamera 2: Region shurai
(Japan, 1996, Shûsuke Kaneko)
I'm a big Godzilla fan, but I'm not well versed in Gamera, having only seen one other film starring the famous kaiju. After watching Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion, I'm definitely keen... no... gagging for some more Gamera action! Gamera 2 is a quality monster movie and is as good as the best Godzilla movies of the 90s. First of all, it delivers on the monsters (something that, surprisingly, a lot of these movies fail miserably at). Gamera and Legion look amazing. They are brilliantly designed and - other than a bit of dodgy CGI - the practical effects used to create them are fantastic. Gamera 2 also scores huge points for having human characters that aren't totally useless. Yes, the humans actually help out Gamera, and I'm not just talking moral support. However, Gamera 2 understands what its audience wants and doesn't spend too long with the humans. No, this is Gamera's film. He is the star, and he is great.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(USA, 2011, David Fincher)
I know this will be sacrilege to fans of the book (and don't get me wrong, I quite like the book, flaws and all), but Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not only one of the best films of 2011, it's also a film that improves on its source material. I prefer to see books and their adaptions as separate entities. A story will obviously have to change when moved from the page to the screen, and that's not a bad thing. But it's hard to ignore the improvements in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - this is about as good as adaptations get. It stays mostly true to its source material, but strips back the fat that I personally felt hindered the book somewhat. It may have a long running time, but Fincher's film is tight, cutting out sections that slowed the book down and tweaking story elements to suit the celluloid format. Only one of the changes (which I can't mentioned without ruining it for those that haven't read the book) bothered me, and it was very minor. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is quite an achievement. The cast is wonderful. Daniel Craig makes for an excellent lead, while Rooney Mara is total perfection as Lisbeth. The film looks so good it almost made me nauseous. From the manic opening titles to the cold, snowy landscape, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a visual delight. And then there's the music. Trent Reznor, once again, gives us a unique and thundering score that knows when to impose and when to fade into the background. It is perhaps even better than his score for The Social Network. And that's saying a lot. Fans of the book should love this movie, and those that haven't read the book may like it even more.     

(USA, 2010, Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis)
Often people that don't know me well, but know me well enough that I like the broad genres of horror and exploitation will tell me "oh, you'll love [insert some awful movie]". Usually, it's a recent piece of shit horror/exploitation movie that's either absolutely unwatchable or one of those irritating films that's really self-aware and ironic (Dead Snow being a prime offender). Machete is one of those films that I always get told I'll love by those that have no understanding of what I'm actually into. So, I finally watched it. And guess what, I don't like it. Just to give some background to this review, I love Grindhouse. I'm talking about the complete Grindhouse - Planet Terror and Death Proof, together with trailers before and in-between. That is Grindhouse to me, not those films by themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed the Machete trailer in Grindhouse and welcomed a full length version of it. But after seeing footage from this feature form, I was a bit turned off. And all my fears were confirmed after watching it. 

Machete is entertaining enough and, admittedly, it never bored me. But my god, Rodriguez really does not seem to understand the genre he is supposedly paying tribute to. Machete feels more like a sneering parody than a tribute. While I was watching it and muttering "shit" under my breath, I got a few comments of "oh, it's meant to be shit". Yes, I'm well aware what it's meant to be. But Machete isn't the good sort of "shit". This isn't the fun "shit", the true b-movie "shit" it wants to be. Machete is shit in the way that a modern straight to DVD film is shit. Machete is as shit as every other "grindhouse" clone that followed Grindhouse. Its tribute to the grindhouse theater is about as true as the fake grain and scratches that swamp the screen. Yes, Machete is a failure. If it removed its misguided attempt at a tribute to the 70s, I'd probably be kinder to it. Even then, I'd still have problems with it. The CGI gore is perhaps the worst thing in Machete. Sure there's a lot of outrageous stuff happening onscreen, but it's hard to appreciate when it's badly rendered in CGI (again, the bad version of "shit", the grindhouses never screened films with half arsed CGI, because it didn't fucking exist). Machete has a few things going for it. Steven Segal is hilarious and Robert De Niro seems to take his role reasonably seriously, which works in the film's favour. It's also nice to see Trejo in a leading role. But - even ignoring its dismal failure as a homage - in the end, Machete kind of stinks. Its about half an hour too long, it looks like crap (in a shot on video kind of way) and there's little payoff in the film's slightly more interesting latter half. I confess that Machete held my attention, but it left me feeling pretty cranky. Leave the tribute-paying to Tarantino, Rodriguez. At least he's seen the movies he's ripping off.     

El mariachi
(USA, 1992, Robert Rodriguez)
Low budget achievements don't come much more impressive than El mariachi. Most first time directors will attempt to make something manageable for their no budget debut, like a horror film or comedy. Not Robert Rodriguez. No, he went straight to the top and tried his hand at an action flick. And, unbelievably, he pulls it off. Not only is this a great action film, it's also, at least in my opinion, his best film. For starters, El mariachi has a wonderful style to its camerawork and editing. Sure, Rodriguez makes a few amateurish mistakes (like breaking the line pretty horrifically), but that's part of its low budget charm. What shines through is a creative energy that only a young filmmaker can possess. There is a willingness in El mariachi to try new techniques even if they fail. Watching the results of a young Rodriguez behind the camera generates the same excitement of seeing a young Sam Raimi's work. This energy and creativeness is something both Rodriguez and Raimi have long since lost, which is sad, but at least we have their early work to salivate over.   

aka Mosura
(Japan, 1961, Ishirô Honda)
Mothra is pretty well liked amongst rabid kaiju fans, so I feel a little nervous in saying that I didn't really dig it. Mothra has never been one of my favourite monsters, and here, without Godzilla, her flaws are truly exposed. Mothra looks cool, but she doesn't really do anything. First she crawls around for a painfully long time, then she finally gets herself into a cocoon to turn into the Mothra we know and love, but then all she does is fly around. I guess the wind from her wings knocks a few people over, but other than that, she's pretty useless. It doesn't help that it takes a whooping forty minutes before Mothra even shows up and an hour before we see her with wings. Every film featuring Mothra also suffers from an abundance of annoying songs - sorry, Mothra fans, but I can't stand those singing twins. Mothra is, without a doubt, the dullest film I've seen by the usually reliable Ishirô Honda. The film is not a total waste. As a lover of all things gigantic monsters, it is nice to see where Mothra got her start. Mothra in flight is also a wonder to behold and a true accomplishment of special effects. The film also opens decently enough with some fairly exciting jungle scenes with excellent sets. But all in all, Mothra is quite the let down.   

Once Upon a Time in Mexico
(USA, 2003, Robert Rodriguez)
Let's not beat around the bush. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a disaster. It's a mess of a movie with a contrived and overly complicated - but still stupid - plot with too many characters. It essentially ignores the story and spirit of its predecessors and strips el Mariachi from his rightful leading role. It also looks like dog shit. Rodriguez may not be able to see the difference between film and video, but I can (and everyone else I watched the movie with - the first time I saw it in the cinema and this time at home). We are also assaulted with some moments of super dodgy CGI (CGI bullet torn legs, anyone?) and an even more dodgy Enrique Iglesias. The cast is full of talented people (Iglesias excluded) and they are all wasted. We get some decent action, but with so many characters and subplots flying about, it's kind of hard to care about anything. There is really only one good thing about Once Upon a Time in Mexico and luckily it's a really, really good thing. So good, in fact, that it makes the movie worth watching at least once. That good thing is Johnny Depp. I'm not Depp's biggest fan, particularly since he became Tim Burton's muse. But he truly owns Once Upon a Time in Mexico, turning what was probably a rubbish role on paper (based on every other character in the film) into a fascinating work of art. Depp's Agent Sands is a character unlike any other. He is a morally corrupt anti-hero of the highest order, and it is impossible to watch Depp without smiling. Watch this if only for Depp. 

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