Archive for May 29, 2011

Oh, hell yes — now we’re talking!

Director Jason Eisener (screenplay by John Davies from a story by Eisener)’s new independent feature Hobo With A Shotgun is the second full-length feature to be extrapolated from the “fake trailers” that accompanied Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature from a couple years back, and sometimes you just gotta kick back and enjoy the sheer tasteless spectacle of it all.

And tasteless is the key word here, folks. Hobo With A Shotgun is pure over-the-top cinematic mayhem that makes up for with heart what is absolutely, gloriously lacks in conscience. It’s a balls-to-the-wall splatterfest revenge flick of positively epic proportions that revels (as well it should) in its sheer, uncompromising lack of anything even remotely resembling good taste. If you’re feeling tired, this is one movie that will wake you the fuck up, and fast.

Me? I was hooked from the word go, obviously. Rutger Hauer (in a role he was positively born to play, talk about perfect casting) is an unnamed hobo who rides the rails into Hope City (more commonly referred to as “Scum City” and “Fuck City” by its residents), and quickly falls afoul of the local crime boss, a dementedly vile and sadistic little urchin who goes by the name of The Drake and who, along with his equally fucked-in-the-head sons Slick and Ivan, and the crooked cops they control, when he exhibits something remotely resembling an average human conscience. The Hobo (that’s all we ever know him as) has ever reason in the world to want to pursue revenge on the Drake clan after they fuck him up in a most undignified manner, but rather than satisfy his bloodlust, he just wants to save up 50 bucks to buy a lawnmower and get in the yard-care business.

It’s just a pipe dream, though, as The Hobo learns when he goes into a pawn shop to finally procure his lawnmower, only to have his shopping experience rudely interrupted by a couple of junkies pursuing a violent hold-up so they can get money to buy more of the drugs that The Drake has hooked them on. When the hoodlums threaten to shoot a baby in the store, The Hobo decides he’s had enough, grabs an old pump-action shotgun off the pawn shop wall, and starts blasting! Soon (after paying for his shotgun and shells, naturally) it’s all-out war as The Hobo, together with his teen-prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold sidekick, Abby, starts taking the city back one shotgun shell at a time. nobody’s safe — pimps, pushers, hold-up artists, and in one particularly memorable sequence even a child molester in a Santa suit, all fall victim to The Hobo’s special brand of retributive justice — with interest.

Needless to say, the actions of this ultra-violent one-man clean-up crew don’t exactly sit well with The Drake and his boys, and that’s when out intrepid Hobo’s troubles really begin —

I don’t know how else to say it, people, but if you only see one movie this year, it should be Hobo With A Shotgun. While it doesn’t have the social conscience of Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, the first “real” movie to be based on a “fake” Grindhouse trailer, and certainly lacks its all-star cast (Hauer is, I guarantee, the only person in this flick you’ve ever heard of), it’s every bit as heartfelt and earnest an homage to the golden years of exploitation cinema, and maybe even more fun, precisely because it’s completely unburdened from trying to make anything like a relevant point whatsoever. Hobo With A Shotgun is here to party, and if you’ve got any sense whatsoever, you’ll join right in.

Lensed in the beautiful Halifax/Dartmouth area of Nova Scotia (a truly picturesque locale that I was fortunate enough to spend a few months in a handful of years ago and that takes a hell of a lot of work to look this shitty, believe you me — hats off to the production design team for their exemplary work here), Hobo With A Shotgun is a monumental achievement (no kidding) in the annals of Canadian independent cinema and deserves a wider audience than it’s probably going to get in limited release (Minneapolis residents take note — it opens at the Lagoon in a couple of weeks here, and we’re lucky, since it’s not getting much theatrical play beyond the two coasts) and on satellite and cable on-demand services (which is where I caught it since I couldn’t wait for it to hit town), and I can only hope that it’s eventual DVD and Blu-ray release will see this massive body-count revenge spectacular find a legion of appreciative fans. I’m proud to say that I was among the first in line. This is the real deal, folks, and if you’ve got the stomach for it, you’re sure to walk away from it wearing the most devious, shit-eating , flat-out unhinged grin you’ve had on your face in waaaaaayyyyy too long. Your friends and neighbors will question your sanity, sure, but they don’t matter and you don’t need them. You’ve got Hobo With A Shotgun. All is right with the world.

So, the story goes that director Kenneth Brangah, distinguished Shakespearean actor that he is, had never so much as opened a single, solitary “Thor” comic book before agreeing to direct Marvel Studios” mega-budget blockbuster adaptation of said material. He dutifully then spent all of 15 minutes perusing old 1960s back-issues of the book before deciding more or less immediately that Jack Kirby was an absolute genius and dictating to his as-yet-unformed visual effects team that his primary goal was to adapt as much of the Kirby “look” as possible for his film.

Now, your friendly neighborhood TFG just happens to be a massive Jack Kirby fan and the one thing I hate above all others about the marvel cinematic boom of recent years is that Stan Lee, a no-talent hack whose uncle got him his job at Marvel, seems to be getting all the credit for “creating” the Marvel Universe, while The King Of Comics himself seems to warrant nary a mention. Thor, however, goes some way toward redressing the balance on this score — in addition to being a whole ton of fun, it’s the first honest-to-God Jack Kirby flick from top to bottom. Oh, sure, Stan “The Man” makes his usual pointless cameo, but everything from the dialogue to the epic scope of the story to the overall visual aesthetic of Asgard to the bold, bad-ass character portrayals is pure Kirby. in fact, you could argue that the look, feel, and even the story itself of Thor all bear a lot more resemblance to Kirby’s later magnum opus for DC, The Fourth World, than they do to anything he did for Marvel, but that’s another matter for another time, I suppose.

As such, given that he’s passed onto the land beyond and can theoretically now observe everything that’s happening, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could find out what Jack himself had to say about the film, so with that in mind your host broke out his trusty Ouija board and kept firing questions into the ether until I found The King’s spirit. Once I started to get responses with lots of quotation marks and exclamation points, I knew I’d found him (and those who wish to be pedantic and point out that a Ouija board features neither exclamation points nor quotation marks can now duly fuck off).

And so, without further ado, I hereby present my dutifully transcribed notes on what the spirit of the late, great Jack Kirby himself had to say in regards to Kenneth Branagh’s film Thor

Greetings and salutations dear reader! You and I are about to embark on an epic journey together of “block-buster” proportions! For truly never has a saga such as this one unfolded on our local neighborhood movie theater screens!

Yes, friends, the “silver screen” is alive with magic and awe-inspiring, “earth-shattering” wonder! Never before has the much-maligned “comic-book industry” given rise to such a mighty spectacle of awe and cosmic wonder! The scale is unparalleled! The action “non-stop!” The splendor and majesty truly the stuff of legend!

I’ve worked before in the field of animated productions, but never have I seen my work so faithfully and expertly adapted in a “live-action” motion picture as director Kenneth Branagh has done here with “Thor!” I am awed,amazed,and humbled by his sheer dedication and faithfulness! Mr. Branagh, “The King” salutes you, sir!

As for the acting, well, truly never has such an “all-star” cast been assembled! Chris Hemsworth shines as the God of Thunder himself! Natalie Portman is enchaning as his love interest! Anthony Hopkins is majesty and wisdom incarnate as Odin! And the supporting cast of Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, rene Russo, Colm Feore, and especially Idris Elba as the stoic Heindall, reign supreme!!!!!!!!!

I am ecstatic at the sheer splendor and scale of this mighty, mythological epic and couldn’t have written a better script for this “motion-picture spectacular” myself! “Thor” is the perfect summer movie full of grand and mighty feats of destruction, devastation, love, and most of all, heroism! It smashes all that has come before and reaches spectacular new heights of soon-to-be-legendary grandeur! “Comic-book movies” have never looksed so good or seemed so real! You will be “blown away,” dear friends — and you’ve got the word of Jack Kirby on that!!!!!!!!!!

And with that, my Ouija board overloaded from sheer excitement and and fast letter-pointing (or whatever you call it), burst into flames, and the spirit of Jack left the room. And since I heartily agree with everything he had to say about Thor and couldn’t possibly put it any better than that myself, I won’t even try. See it now if you haven’t already, and see it again if you have.

It’s never come up before on this blog, but your humble host absolutely loves Woody Allen. I never miss his one of his films and usually try to make it a point to go out and catch them on opening weekend. Sure, it’s been something of a bumpier ride lately, as his international travelogue has been going on for the better part of a decade now and there will probably always be something intrinsically off about a Woody Allen movie that doesn’t take place in New York, but what the hell — his extended sojourn abroad has produced at least one genuine classic in Match Point, and that makes clunkers like Scoop and pointless dead-enders like Vicky Cristina Barcelona worth it to devotees of the maestro and his work. Mostly what we’ve gotten are middling efforts like You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and Cassandra’s Dream (which was nowhere near as bad as everyone says, but does prove that Allen has trouble writing anything other than well-educated, economically-upper-crust characters — still, he gave it a shot), but I’m pleased to say that his latest, Midnight In Paris, is a definite gem — an earnest, if flawed, love letter to a magical place and times gone by that nevertheless keeps its footing in reality, it’s a celebration of both Paris as it was, and of the city, and life in general (warts and all), as it is today.

And in a way, it pains me to say this because I absolutely despise Owen Wilson. I mean, with a passion, His whole shtick is just so fucking tedious in the extreme that the idea of his playing Woody’s latest younger-version-of-himself stand-in grated on my nerves before I even saw the film. Okay, Owen, you’ve got messy hair and a goofy nose. Get the fuck over yourself already.

Still, this is such a charming little flick that even Wilson can’t ruin it. It’s a little bit light on substance, to be sure, and Rachel McAdams’ Inez character is two-dimensional in the extreme, but sometimes you just get taken in by a clever premise and all you can do it sit back and enjoy the ride.

And the premise for Midnight In Paris is, indeed, clever in the extreme. Wilson portrays Hollywood hack screenwriter Gil Pender, who’s understandably dissatisfied with the Tinseltown rat race and has gone to Paris with his fiancee, the aforementioned Inez, and her overbearing wealthy parents. Inez is such a superficial harpy that you honesty wonder what Gil ever saw in the spoiled little bitch in the first place, and her mom and dad are even worse. Their whole life apparently revolves around planning an elaborate wedding and buying a house, but the more he’s sucked into vacuous, empty world of Inez’s pedestrian dreams, the more he finds himself taken with the City of Lights, and who can really blame the guy?

One evening Gil decides to cut things short after dinner with Inez and her friends Carol (Nina Arianda) and Paul (Michael Sheen, turning in a deliciously OTT performance as an overbearing know-it-all,pretentious college professor — nobody writes a more entertaining asshole than Woody Allen, and his last several films have sorely lacked this key ingredient, so it’s nice to see he hasn’t lost his touch), and decides to stroll home alone while they go out dancing. While sitting on some church steps and taking in the night, though, something remarkable happens — an old Peugeot cab emerges from nowhere , its drunken occupants invite Gil inside for a ride, and soon, for reasons never made in the least bit clear and that don’t really matter much anyway,  he’s hob-nobbing with a veritable who’s-who of the literary and artistic world in 1920s Paris. They’re all here, folks — F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, Cole Porter, you name it.

Yeah, I know, I wouldn’t want to come back either, but as the sun rises in the morning Gil finds himself back in the dreary confines of his well-to-do-but-empty existence. The next night, though, the cab is back, and in fact it returns each subsequent evening at the stroke of midnight. Soon Gil is best pals with all the artistic intelligentsia of the time (and it must be said the casting for all these roles is extraordinary, with special mention going to Kathy Bates as Stein, Adrien Brody as Dali and Corey Stall as Hemingway, who tear into their roles with absolute relish to one degree or another), his novel is finally coming together, and he’s falling in love with a young lady named Adriana (given that she’s played by Marion Cotillard can you really blame him?) who’s also being pursued by both Picasso and Hemingway. We get more cameos from the likes of Man Ray, Alice B. Toklas, Josephine Baker, and Djuana Barnes, to name-drop just a few more, and by this point you’re either taken with the movie’s admittedly less-than-subtle spell, or you’re just not human.

Still, this being a Woody Allen film and all, no paradise can last forever, and just as he’s falling for Adriana, the time travel thing kicks into high gear and sends them both back even further, to 1890s Paris and the Belle Epoque, and Adriana must choose between  with her newfound love or remaining in Paris’ most legendary era ever.

And therein lies the rub — Midnight In Paris is cautious about its own romanticism, and Allen admits that his legendary taste for the nostalgic is a dead end in its own right, if a most pleasant and endearing one. The past ain’t worth a fuck if we get lost in it rather than taking whatever lessons it has to offer and applying them to our lives in the present. Will Gil be sucked in completely, or will he do the right thing, painful as it may be, and return home while he still can?

Look, you probably already know the answer to this, but I won’t soil it completely just on principle. Suffice to say that Gil’s decision is one which will surprise no one, and will lead to resolution that wraps up all loose ends a little too quickly and a little tidily, but that rings true despite its flaws. Which is rather reflective of the film itself, it must be said — hardly perfect, maybe a little bit over-indulgent (the cameo by France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni, as a museum tour guide particularly makes no real sense), and all a bit too neat, but enchantingly perfect in its own way nevertheless.

By the time the film ends with Paris in the rain (of course), you’ll have been subjected to every romanticized cliche about the city, both present and past, you could possibly imagine — but rather than feeling pandered or condescended to, you’ll be smiling all the way home.

After being bowled over like so many others by the utterly unique singularity (in both the good and bad sense of the term, naturally) of writer-director James Nguyen’s Birdemic : Shock And Terror, I immediately set out to find his earlier show-on-video no-budget efforts in order to observe his —- uhhhmmm — creative development, shall we say, first hand. To my dismay, his 2005 effort, Replica, is still unavailable in any format whatsoever — it’s not on DVD, you can’t stream it through Netflix, nothing apart from a handful of clips on YouTube can be found. Maybe some enterprising soul will put the whole thing up on there in ten-minute chunks or something, but as of yet this service to humanity remains unperformed.

That being said, I was more than pleasantly surprised that the mid-level-software-salesman-turned-cut-rate-auteur’s debut effort, 2003’s Julie And Jack, is available both on DVD (I hear it’s a full-frame stereo presentation with no extras to speak of at all, but not having seen it this way myself can’t fairly comment on its technical specs) and on Netflix instant watch, so I plopped myself down in front of the computer a couple weeks ago, kicked back, and mentally prepared myself to be, if not amazed, at least flabbergasted.

On the whole, I wasn’t disappointed. Julie And Jack is definitely a rougher and more unpolished (if you can believe such a thing is possible) effort than Birdemic, but it’s every bit as jaw-droppingly insane in its own way.

Our story revolves around a (get this) mid-level software salesman in Silicon Valley (they always say write what you know) named Jack Livingston (portrayed in typically wooden Nguyen style by Justin Kunkle) whose performance at work is bottoming out after an unhappy breakup. In order to alleviate his loneliness and hopefully save his job, Jack decides to go trolling for love on the internet and after cruising around the various dating sites for a time meets a fetching young lady named Julie Romanov (Jenn Gotzon, who also fits the soon-to-be-developed Nguyen pattern of having female leads who are considerably more competent in the acting department than their male counterparts). Julie’s got it all, it seems — she’s pretty, witty, sharp, interesting (as far as these things so — remember that this is James Nguyen dialogue she’s forced to speak, after all, though in this case he’s also assisted by a writing partner by the name of Joe Bright), and to top it all off she’s a world-class computer genius who works on artificial intelligence systems. Can’t say I blame Jack for hitting the online matchmaker sites since Julie’s definitely not the kind of girl you’re likely to meet at a bar.

Soon, Jack is outperforming everyone else at work, winning every sales contest in the book, and even managing to close deals with the most dead-end, tight-wad customers that nobody else wants to deal with. Clearly his budding romance is having a positive influence on every aspect of his life. There’s just one big sticking point, though — Julie is hesitant in the extreme (to put it mildly) about meeting Jack in real life, and their affair is strictly conducted via online communication only.

The good news is that at some point, for some unknown reason, Jack’s (unseen, believe me) charm apparently wins her over and soon they’re going out to eat, enjoying long walks in the park, taking in the various Bay Area sights, and even attending fancy-dress parties together. Yes, folks, love is in the air!

But then something strange happens — Julie tells Jack, right out of the blue, that she can’t see him anymore, and right around the time of this bombshell (relatively speaking, I realize) we’re treated to something I never thought I’d see in a James Nguyen film — a genuinely competently-delivered plot surprise, about which I’ll keep my mouth shut other than to say that it explains (for reasons other than budgetary) why all of Jack n. Julie’s “dates” take place in front of cheesy green-screen backdrops.  I will now duly shut up about that, but let’s just say that it’s handled in a very nonchalant, conversational manner that actually works pretty well.

Anyway, soon Jack’s hot on her trail, speaking to Julie’s old college roommates, one of her former professors (Nguyen himself), her ex-boyfriend, former business colleagues, the works — when a girl won’t answer any of your emails, you just gotta take matters into your own hands, it seems. In any case, perhaps the most surprising thing about Jack’s quest is just how unsurprising everything he learns is — our gal Julie is everything she claims to be. In fact, if anything she’s sold herself a bit short, because not only is she a revolutionary technological visionary, she’s apparently rich as hell, too.

So what gives?  Why the sudden cold shoulder? It’s only when Jack finally tracks down her parents (her mom, by the way, is played by Tippi Hedren, cementing Nguyen’s reputation as a Hitchcock devotee in his very first film) that he learns the horrible truth about why Julie won’t — in fact, can’t — continue their relationship. Will Jack have the strength to love her anyway despite learning this (by now obvious) fact, will he walk away, will it all end in tears, or will Jack win her back only to have it end in tears anyway?

If you chose the final option, you are the winner of — well, nothing, but you got it right. But again, I’ll clam up on the exact details of how and why it all plays out like it does just because you really should see this flick for yourself.

Here, then, lies the seed from which a mighty oak will grow. Julie And Jack has all the classic Nguyen elements that have made him the self-proclaimed “master of the romantic thriller” (actually, that should be Romantic Thriller TM, since the ever-enterprising Mr. Nguyen has actually trademarked the phrase) : horribly amateurish acting, especially from the guys, sound drop-outs left and right, characters chasing the so-called Silicon Valley Dream (that phrase should be trademarked as well — you’re dropping the ball, James), stilted and unrealistic dialogue, almost uncomfortably dispassionate love affairs, ludicrously bad “special” effects, soon-to-be-Nguyen regulars like Damien Carter and Patsy van Ettinger, cringe-worthy dialogue, and an unintentionally absurd plot that actually achieves the truly rare distinction of completely accidental surrealism. It’s all here, folks, and the line that goes from Julie And Jack in 2003 to Birdemic : Shock And Terror in 2008 is about as straight as it gets. Nobody other than James Nguyen could — or would even want to — make this film.  It’s in no way trepidatious or timid, to be sure — Nguyen came charging right out of the gate with his first film and told the story he wanted to tell in the only way he could, given the severe limitations in terms of budget and overall ability he’s always been saddled with. Like Birdemic, it’s no stretch at all to call this a visionary work.

Let’s just remember that not all visionaries are geniuses.