Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
Christopher: Man, they weren't joking around with the whole "Sherlock Holmes in the Tang Dynasty" pitch. This movie is essentially a rip-off of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes flick: a mercurial master detective who can also kick ass. Excessive, special effects laden spectacle. A strange emphasis on "logic" and anti-mysticism completely undercut by the cinematic style's complete disregard for physics and, well, reality. Instead of a climax on the newly constructed London Bridge, this one ends with a showdown on an under-construction 100 foot Buddha statue outside of the Imperial Palace. What I'm saying is: this movie is totally enjoyable. The central mystery (of the phantom flame) revolves around a really cool special effect where afflicted characters disintegrate into a mass of ashes if they step into the sunlight. There's robot puppets, evil ninja assassins, cross-dressing double-crossers, gravity-defying wuxia pian swordsmanship, poisonous beetles, ancient curses and shady political conspiracies. Also, the main character (the handsome Mr. Detective Dee himself) starts out the movie faking blindness in prison burning government log books and it ends it forced to live in a subterranean garbage city. What I'm saying is: you should make an effort to see this movie. If it had been made in Hollywood, it would have grossed $250 million dollars and there would be a sequel in the works already.
The Vanishing on 7th Street.
John: As I mentioned in our TIFF preview, genre director Brad Anderson is a big guilty pleasure for me. He has a good reputation thanks to Session 9, which like his subsequent efforts - The Machinist, Transsiberian, his "Masters of Horror" entry - is watchable but also undeniably pretty goddamn stupid. This movie is no exception, but sitting through it at 10 in the morning (a good time for a Brad Anderson movie) I realized that he actually isn't a d-grade Polanski: he's more like an unpretentious M. Night Shaymalan. A perfectly acceptable cast of bad actors (Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo) find that they're the last people left in the world after experiencing SIGNS of a HAPPENING. They get LOST in the FLASH FORWARD of an EVENT, is what I'm trying to say, and John Leguizamo enters the HOUSE OF BUGGIN'. Everyone else in the world has pulled an Obi Wan Kenobi, leaving behind only a pile of clothes - shadow people are suspected. Like the best-worst of these kind of movies, the rules make no sense (they have to stay in the light to keep from being eaten by the shadow people, but are constantly running around without any light on them or being "shadow snatched" when they're surrounded by the stuff) and exist only for the people in the movie to brashly ignore. The film's relatively short running time doesn't give the cast a chance to do much other than flip the fuck out and offer random theories as to what's going on, yet the movie is padded with flashbacks that don't really give any insight into these characters. Not that the actors are really up to the task of building memorable roles - at one point a plane crashes right behind Christensen and he barely reacts. But he brings out his full set of frantic expressions as whatever PHANTOM MENACE is stalking them becomes more threatening.
What I learned: That attractive girls who work at mall movie theater popcorn counter apparently find dorky projectionist John Leguizamo attractive. Also, I'm curious to see what movie Leguizamo does to wrap up his trilogy of "something mysterious happens, John Leguizamo is one of the last people alive in the world but gets killed before the movie's over" films.
Deep in the Woods.
John: The premise was sexy enough, but I didn't last too long in this one. If you want to do a porno version of Kasper Hauser, at least find more attractive French people. Basically a snobby upper class girl is raped by a dirty magical drifter and finds herself compelled to follow him when he leaves her father's fancy country house. Benoit Jacquot, director of A Single Girl and that earlier version of Wings of the Dove written by Wim Wenders and Peter Handke starring Isabelle Huppert and Dominique Sanda that I never heard of until looking the director up on imdb just now that I'm going to have to hunt down a copy of, is clearly a talented dude but with this film comes off like the same kind of faux-provocateur as the guy who made Tendor Son. I heard later that certain audience members were offended by the film, but I was just bored.
What I learned: Some girls you'd expect to be pro-hygiene are in fact turned on by filthy drifters.
John: I read "Araki" and "college," and immediately pictured exactly what the film turned out to be for the first forty-five minutes: attractive young people with names like Thor, London and The Messiah moving from one bed to another, gay guys with straight girls, sarcastic lesbians with vengeful witches, married men with students. These characters appear to have said farewell to their deterministic view of biology at birth. The lead is Village of the Damned's Thomas Dekker, all grown up and looking shaggy. The best eye candy is Fat Girl's Roxane Mesquida, all grown up and looking phenomenal. I never would have considered checking this movie out if Araki hadn't been responsible for Smiley Face, which I saw at TIFF three years ago and remains the only film to make good use of Anna Farris. I wonder if his hardcore fans are pissed that he went from the somewhat edgy The Living End and bleak, arty Mysterious Skin to stoner comedies and tongue-in-cheek conspiracy thrillers like this one. Seriously, the main influence on the movie seems to have been Scooby Doo: when the masked villains are revealed they're all characters from the main guy's life. Araki clearly wants to tie up the impossibly loose plot by the final scene but seems to have run out of ideas or lost interest at some point in the script and the movie literally, and abruptly, ends with a "kaboom."
What I learned: I never thought I'd use the phrase "Araki did it better," but leaving this screening I realized that Tykwer's Three was also a worse version of Araki's movie Splendor co-starring the great Johnathon Schaech.
Fire of Conscience:
John: The heroic bloodshed subgenre is not dead, so long as guys who sound like they should be related to Ringo Lam continue to make movies in which tortured cops and honorable thieves swap bullets in a flaming garage as a woman gives birth to a baby. That's at least in the spirit of the subgenre, and there isn't a dull action scene in the movie - it's the parts in between that could work better. All we knew about Tequila in Hard Boiled was that he liked to play the clarinet in light jazz clubs in his spare time, but that was more character background than we're offered with Leon Lai's Captain Manfred(!) who appears grizzled and alcoholic for a reason never mentioned, unless I missed it. [I believe his wife and kid left him. And/or died. He's definitely alcoholic for family-related reasons. Just like me. - Christopher.] I found myself better understanding if not condoning the acts of Richie Ren's corrupt Inspector Kee, who we at least know is doing dirty deeds to make a better life for his wife. Of course you'd think that would make him more sympathetic to the poor bastard the bad guys force to work for them by threatening his pregnant spouse, but I guess that's why he's the villain. I'm surprised there are any policemen left at the end of the movie considering the film's high rate of cop casualties.
What I learned: That I honestly, kind of tragically, miss John Woo.
Christopher: I had a very similar reaction to John on this one: a huge amount of nostalgia for the Hong Kong bullet-riddled melodramas that flowed forth like a mighty river of blood and tears from our VCR's in the 90's. The heroic bloodshed genre definitely wore out its welcome, at least in part because of its ubiqity and over-praise from American enthusiasts like chronic ruiner-of-everything Quetin Tarantino, but damn if it doesn't hold up as an approach to action cinema in spite of everything. Now that these types of films, films in which heroes and villians are both as likely to have their heads graphically blown off, films in which childbirth and the bonds of comraderie rate as much importance and screentime as cacophonous shootouts, films in which helpless patsies rigged with explosive devices offer the dying words "I am not a thief!" now that these films are not a dime a dozen and constantly finding their way onto my t.v., I really do miss their particular brand of lunatic, operatic violence. I'm still not clear why that one hand-grenade that fell out of the dude's pocket didn't go off, though.
John Carpenter's The Ward.
Christopher: It's all inside her head. She has split personalities that the movie pretends are real, separate people. She was kidnapped and molested as a youngster, so she burned down the house where it happened and went all craaaaazy, got sent to The Ward and developed these very special individual personalities (that are, we assure you, we're not joking, actual real people.) There. I spoiled for the movie for you. And you know what? I did you a goddamned favor because now you're never going to want to see this piece of shit. Certainly, the hugest disappointment of the festival - and possibly of my adult life - this is a gimmicky idea in a cheesy setting with terrible acting and a lame villian and containing nothing resembling a scare or a piece of inventiveness or a point of interest. The worst part: the movie wraps up with a final scene that's very quiet and pedestrian, the film has climaxed and everything is back to normal... which we all know what's going to happen here. I leaned over to John and said "the only way I will be able to cut this movie even an ounce of slack is if it doesn't end with a stupid cat scare -" and before I could even get those words out of my mouth, the main girl went to her mirror and Amber Heard jumped out. Boo! Fuck. this. movie. There's not an ounce of Carpenter weirdness or originality. Those of you jackasses who took a dump on Ghosts of Mars and In the Mouth of Madness are to blame: this is what Carpenter looks like if you take away his personality. And it's not pretty. The only good thing about the movie was that it used The Carpenter Font in the titles.
John: I've always been a Carpenter fan, never a Carpenter apologist. And I'm not going to start now: The Ward is the worst film he has ever made. That's coming from someone who has a genuine fondness if not all-out love for The Fog, Christine, Vampires, Village of the Damned and Ghosts of Mars. Even Memoirs of an Invisible Man at least had Sam Neill. Jared Harris is no Sam Neill. Going into the film, it didn't even cross my mind to hope that this would somehow transcend the "haunted insane asylum" formula: I had faith that Carpenter could never turn hack. Sadly, this can't even be blamed on the low budget like the weak finale of Joe Dante's The Hole from last year - it seems like the director had everything he needed to make this "John Carpenter's The Ward," but unlike Dante he brings nothing of himself to a single shot of the film (save his signature credit font). This makes his "Masters of Horror" entries seem like The Thing by comparison. The boring, cliche-riddling script by two nobodies involves a group of generic "crazy girls" being stalked by a stupid-looking ghost (this is also a blotch on the resume of makeup artist Gregory Nicotero, who's worked on everything from the Evil Dead movies to Kill Bill). The movie is plagued by bad performances - let's all hope Amber Heard brings more to her role in The Rum Diary later this year - but I doubt even an all-star cast would have done anything to turn the bland script into something resembling classic Carpenter. I mean it doesn't really matter, something as dismissible as The Ward will do nothing to scar his legacy. It's just a big disappointment.
What I learned: Upon further research, I've learned that this movie was actually directed by a different John Carpenter, the one who murdered Bob Crane. (That's a lie, he's been dead for 12 years so I can't use him as a patsy. Shucks.)[I learned that Meryl Streep's daughter is tough to look at and talentless. - Christopher.]
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