Wednesday, October 31, 2012

PS. Halloween!

I almost forgot: aw shit son! It's Halloween!

I'll have the rest of my Film Fest reviews up soon. I got bogged down with the triple trouble of seeing the movies, grading papers, and getting a cold. And then a hurricane hit. Now I'm having a beer and watching Spike & Mike's Halloween Marathon. Happy Halloween!

PFF: Miami Connection Review

Miami Connection at NYAFF - July 7th! from Drafthouse Films on Vimeo.

A group of Taekwondo black-belts in a New Wave band confront life issues while being menaced by a clan of Harley-riding, coke-dealing ninjas.

No, you don't understand. I toned it down for that description.

This was one of the two midnight screenings at the Festival and, I admit, I didn't go. Because I saw it a few months ago at Exhumed Films, but I'd been excited about it ever since I saw the trailer on Everything is Terrible! This movie has it all if you're a 12-year-old boy in the '80's. I'll try to walk through the plot, what plot there is.

Dragon Sound is a New Wave band composed of Taekwondo black-belts who are all orphans and sing songs about, what else, friendship and the power of Taekwondo to defeat the ninja. The ninja haven't shown up yet, they're just opposed to ninja in principle (which you know will lead to someone totally flipping out). The guitarist is dating the female singer. Her brother is the eponymous Miami connection for a clan of ninjas to deal their coke in Miami. He decides he doesn't want his sister associating with the guitarist and so Dragon Sound must be destroyed to keep the band from interfering in the drug trade.

That they're not involved in.

And know nothing about.

And aren't trying to stop.

The movie doesn't so much follow from there as continue to have things happen on screen. Nothing really ties to anything else, there are long scenes that do nothing (a trip to the pizza parlor, a trip to the beach), all culminating in an ultra-violent freak-out at the end.

In other words, pure deliciousness.

The movie is not good at all, but it is unrelentingly gleeful. That 12-year-old's enthusiasm for all that's "awesome" positively beams from the screen. It's hard not to tap into the joy that inspired this movie. There's very little ability on display--apart from the Taekwondo--but that didn't stop anyone involved from going whole-hog because they thought it would be fun.

The movie is actually gleeful, and that's rare in just about any medium. Drafthouse Films is giving it a proper theatrical release, so if you can see it in theaters, do. If you can't, make sure to watch it with friends. The constant WTF moments won't stick unless you have someone to share them with. Also, you want someone with you who, when you inevitably go, "If they can make a movie, I sure as hell can make a movie!" will reply, "Fuck yes!"

4/5 stars.

PFF: The ABCs of Death Review

26 directors, each given $5,000, a letter of the alphabet, and complete freedom compile an alphabetical guide of ways to die.

This was one of the movies I was excited to see at the festival. It met all my criteria: weird, ambitious, and unlikely to be screened elsewhere. And while it did not disappoint, it did not thrill either.

This is the most anthological (not a real word) of any horror anthology I've ever seen. 26 short films, only one of which appears in the trailer above, becomes, as you would expect, a challenging viewing experience. It's not that the movie is particularly sick or perverse or lacking in any way, there's just so much of it that I became overwhelmed by the experience of watching itself. Once the viewing crosses that line, a touch of the joy is lost.

Not to say there weren't very good shorts here. "D is for Dogfighting" was being screened before select prints of V/H/S as a preview for this movie and with good reason. The short is markedly well-done, constantly inventive, and conveys a full story in the briefest span. And it was fun to watch.

Likewise "Q is for Quack," "W is for WTF," "K is for Klutz," and "T is for Toilet" which all stick out in my mind. Ti West's short disappointed as did his piece for V/H/S, which was, again, doubly disappointing because he was one of the directors I was excited about. His short here came off as a cheap joke, almost lazy, and, after the joy I had seeing The Innkeepers at last year's festival, I'm wondering if the short form is really where he should be working.

There is a lot of good to this collection and I'm selling it short by criticizing it as I am. The problem ultimately lies in the presentation. This shouldn't be one program with piece after piece after piece. That becomes too much to take in and, since it's structured around the alphabet, kills some of the surprises. I found myself as the shorts went on trying to figure out what the cause of death would be. "If it's this letter, what could it be? What are they showing?" It didn't help that I became so exhausted watching that I forgot how the alphabet went, thinking U immediately followed Q. I would have enjoyed all of it more if it'd been sprinkled throughout a horror movie marathon--like a cable channel having a month of monsters and throughout playing random selections from The ABCs of Death. Then the shorts would have arrived in digestible chunks and not necessarily in order, adding a little more of a surprise.

Although nothing could be as surprising as Z. That, in all fairness, was the most ardently insane thing I'd ever seen on a movie screen and, yes, worth the price of admission alone, even if I'd had to pay.

3.5/5 stars

Story Slam: The Unknown

I told a ghost story. Happy Halloween.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

PFF: Waiting for Lightning Review

DC Shoes and Megaramp present the story of Megaramp founder and DC Shoes co-founder in a DC Shoes production of a Megaramp film brought to you through special promotional consideration by DC Shoes parent company Quicksilver in association with Monster Energy Drink the story of oh crap we've run out of money for the last ten minutes quick Bud Light will pick up the tab and do we still even need to do a movie?

I haven't seen The Greatest Movie Ever Sold yet, but it's hard to imagine it having less aggressive product-placement than this documentary. Even the trailer is constantly marked "DC Shoes." I actually liked DC Shoes before seeing this movie--their shoes were comfy, simple, and fit well. But having wasted one of my festival viewings being tricked into watching a 90-minute ad has made them join Nike on the list of brands I'll never wear again.

I'd be able to overlook the product-placement if the movie itself weren't already two movies forced together and failing to have a happy marriage.

The film is supposed to be about skateboarder Danny Way jumping the Great Wall of China in 2005. This represents the signal moment of his career, the pinnacle, where he pushes not only himself beyond what he had imagined was possible, but skateboarding as a sport. A technically massive undertaking that requires building a 120-foot-high ramp with a crew that doesn't speak the language of the project heads and where a half-inch imprecision could mean Way's death.

That's a story right there: how does something like this get off the ground, how does it come together, what drives a man to pursue such a thing, and, obviously, does he make it?

The problem is, that's not the movie, that's the frame that the movie keeps returning to, forever teasing a little more of the jump throughout so that when the jump finally arrives, not only does the outcome seem a given, I'm too bored to even care.

The movie we get instead is a VH1 Behind the Music-style biopic about Danny Way which involves equal parts archival footage of Way skating, talking heads, and recreations/dramatizations of what the talking heads are saying, usually with the players in the recreations wearing DC Shoes. Bad enough that the biopic follows the tragedy-passion-downfall-redemption arc of Behind the Music, and ignoring that all the interviewees speaking in elegiac terms of Danny throughout as though he died in the jump (which was the biggest giveaway that he did it successfully), the film fails to translate skateboarding to the layman.

I know I'm asking a lot of the documentary to make me understand the difference between good skateboarding and bad, to generate a literacy I would never otherwise have, but there is such a lost opportunity here. The talking heads keep returning to the fact that Way's the best out there, the best ever, and that was clear from day one, that watching him skate was an unrelenting shock. We don't want for videos of Way on the skateboard. He does some moves that are, yes, very impressive, but most of the videos are of him grinding an edge, getting vertical on a ramp, doing a kickflip or a turn. He may be doing these things very well, he may be demonstrating an obvious and unparalleled skill, but I don't know good from bad. All I saw was him doing skateboard things I've seen other skateboarders do too. I can't do them, but I don't know why him doing them was amazing.

I've seen documentaries inform me in exactly that way. Planet B-Boy made me understand breakdancing in ways I never did before and has allowed me to be truly impressed by what I see. Hell, even Wordplay made me understand the thrill of crossword puzzles. How can a skateboarding documentary actually make me care less about skateboarding after watching it?

A relentlessly frustrating film and probably the worst I'll see at the festival this year. On the upside, things can only get better.

2/5 stars

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Philadelphia Film Fest

This will be a placeholder until I can update it with more, but until then, I'll be attending the 2012 Philadelphia Film Festival.

If my students put that in a paper, I'd tell them they'd written a sentence that says nothing.

Of course I'd be attending the Fest. I love movies, I love weird movies, and I even love just going to movies so the Fest is right up my street. Plus festivals are one of the rare venues where you can see short films which tend to be amazing in ways wholly unexpected.

What makes my going to the Fest this year significant is that, thanks to UWishUNu, the Philadelphia tourism blog, I won two silver badges for the Festival. They include free entry into every screening plus access to various parties and the Festival bar. If you're anything like me, you stopped reading after "entry into every screening" because who gives a toss about the rest?

I'll be posting about every movie I see, but I wanted to throw this post up beforehand just to express my gratitude to both UWishUNu and the Philadelphia Film Society for the passes. I'd be trying to see as many films as I could regardless, but that would have come down to what I could afford. Now it's all an issue of scheduling.

I'm going to nerd out so hard you don't even know.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

V/H/S Review

V/H/S is a found-footage anthology horror film--two difficult forms that come together surprisingly well. I just got back from a preview and rather than post the trailer up at the top, I've posted the video of the song that closes the film for two reasons:
  1. I love the Death Set and that song is among my favorite of theirs
  2. Any advance information about this movie takes away some of the fun of it
I watched the trailer which made me check Wikipedia and thus I knew the backstory of everything in the movie

Check the archives. I never claimed to be smart.

If you want to see the trailer, click on the film's title, but frankly, even the brief clips there give away too much.

I'm not giving anything away when I say that it's a found-footage anthology film, though. The frame is a group of hooligans who videotape their various antics and are hired to get a videotape from a house. When they arrive, rather than find one tape, they find many and start watching them to figure out which tape they're supposed to leave with. The five tapes they watch--and that we thus watch--make up the rest of the film with short returns to the group in the house between tapes.

The five stories are:
  1. A trio of guys, one with a hidden camera in his glasses, go bar-hopping to pick up girls.
  2. A couple is making a video diary of their trip in the Southwest.
  3. Four college-age kids go for a trip in the woods and bring a video camera.
  4. A couple videochats with each other, the woman telling her boyfriend that she thinks her house is haunted.
  5. Four guys go looking for a Halloween party in 1998. One is dressed as a Nannycam--a teddy bear with a camera hidden in its head.
I realize these are the thinnest of descriptions, barely even set-ups, but they're all I'm comfortable relating. The second piece was done by Ti West who blew me away last year with The Innkeepers and was a big reason I was excited about seeing this movie. Unfortunately, while good, it's also the weakest of the five--partly because it's too subtle, partly because the horror at its core is too mundane (although it is a nice dramatization of certain urban legends). There are hints of stress in the couple's relationship, but that can't be effectively explored in a short, and the found footage element isn't as interesting as it is in the others pieces. I would have preferred if this wasn't in the movie but was rather done for Masters of Horror. What is has right now isn't enough for a feature-length film, but could be fantastic at 45 minutes to an hour.

The other four shorts, and the frame itself, have the medium very tightly integrated into the story. Even the third story where it's just some kids taking a camera with them--which should sound as unambitious as the camera in the Ti West piece--ends up making the horror that emerges very uniquely video-based and visual. If anything, it reminds of the video game Slender

I don't want to say much more--that's a lie, actually. I want to talk about this movie in giddy, giggling terms. The film is just a fun, fun ride. Watching it makes me feel like the Halloween season has officially started. If I have any other criticisms, it's the same one that I have of Grindhouse: the affectation of artifacts being added to the film. In Grindhouse it was unnecessary film scratches and other elements to make it look like an old grindhouse movie. Here, it's video artifacts: digital hangups in the videochat, blue screens and static when cameras get hit. The artifacts are affectations and, curiously, decreased the manufactured reality of the clips. They seemed to shout, "You're watching a video!" which broke the spell. Fortunately, the pieces themselves were strong enough to overcome those moments.

V/H/S is available on Video On Demand, but has a limited theatrical release starting Friday, October 5th. Catch it in the theater if you get the chance. It'll be gone too quickly and that's where it's really effective--because that's where it's immersive. This is something you want to fall in to.

4 out of 5

Monday, October 01, 2012