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March 25, 2009

Filed under: movies»reviews»foreign

Review: The Machine Girl

Noburo Igichi's The Machine Girl is basically what you'd get if Peter Jackson had sat down with revenge-epics Oldboy and Kill Bill instead of a bunch of slasher flicks before making Dead Alive. Like Jackson's classic gross-out horror comedy, The Machine Girl is low-budget, outrageously gory, and perfectly cast. And if it never reaches quite the same heights ("I kick ass for the Lord!"), it's also far more consistent and doesn't suffer from the dragging pace of its predecessor.

Warning: trailer may contain both spoilers and awesomeness.

Without spoiling things too much, The Machine Girl is about a student named Ami whose brother is killed by the son of a local Yakuza boss. Ami tries to take revenge, but loses an arm in the process. She's taken in by the parents of her brother's friend (also murdered), who join her in her quest for vengeance by constructing a prosthetic chaingun arm. Ultraviolence, and no small amount of stupidity, ensues.

I hesitate to say that it's a good movie. But then, to call something like The Machine Girl "good" is to miss the point. This is gleefully juvenile, not high cinema: it's Takashi Miike without the class, early Sam Raimi without the playfulness. At one point, someone is stabbed in the neck so hard that they spit out their intestines. If you can handle that, and if you finished the trailer with a stupid grin on your face, you'll probably enjoy it. But like Dead Alive or Miike's less artful outings (Gozu, for example), it's definitely not for everyone.

May 6, 2008

Filed under: movies»reviews»foreign

Movie Review: Stalker

"I'm going to watch a three hour Russian film classic," I told anyone who asked last weekend, and a few people who didn't. Luckily, Stalker is one of those long films that justifies its own length--and watching it in two sessions didn't hurt. If the running time intimidates you, I'd highly recommend breaking it up into smaller chunks in order to watch it--it's conveniently broken into Parts 1 and 2 for just such an approach.

Like the game of the same title, Stalker is very loosely based on a science fiction story named "Roadside Picnic." It's set in and around the Zone, a dangerous, trap-filled area created through mysterious means. Three men--the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor--enter the Zone in search of a room that supposedly grants wishes. The Stalker is their guide through this territory, and requires them to step through an elaborate series of pathes and tests on the way.

Although it's a high-concept sci-fi film, there are basically no special effects or technological machines in Stalker. It's shot in fields, abandoned buildings, and underground tunnels, and through dialog and character actions these locations are transformed into something unsettling and claustrophobic (although it should be noted that the production involved a chemical plant that probably led to fatal cancer for several cast members). The Zone is used as a hook for the character to expound on their philosophies, their plans, and what they hope to get out of the room at the end of their journey.

This makes the film very "Russian" to my mind, but it's well-written. And the cinematography is exquisite. Director Andrei Tarkovsky, who also directed the original adaptation of Solaris, indulges in slow zooms and long takes that would be excruciating if the images themselves--either in vibrant color or shimmering, gold-tinted black and white--were not so beautiful. I am not an analog film fanatic, but if I were so inclined, this would possibly be the film to convert me.

February 7, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»foreign


Ultimately a disturbing film, Cronicas wavers between unsettling ambiguity combined with blatant and unsubtle plot points. It's a story about tabloid journalism set in Latin America, although that shouldn't limit its impact only to Telemundo. John Leguizamo plays a TV reporter, accompanied by a producer and a cameraman, tracking a serial killer and pedophile in the village of Babahoyo. The reporter zeroes in on an imprisoned man that he suspects may be the killer, but a confession is slow to come. Meanwhile, the team sends footage back to their program that triumphs the suspect as wrongfully imprisoned for hitting a child with his truck--footage that obviously conflicts with the other narrative that they're simultaneously developing.

Cronicas eventually lets us know which story is the truth, and a great amount of its suspense comes from figuring out which will actually air. The director, Sebastian Cordero, wants us to understand that these two factors, truthfulness and exposure, are not inextricably linked in the minds of these journalists, although they may posture to the contrary. I'm not saying that this isn't a good point, or that Cordero doesn't leave the audience uncomfortable. I think the confusion comes from the suspected killer, played with a damp madness by Damien Alcazar, whose performance is genuinely creepy but who doesn't leave the audience with much doubt as to his innocence or guilt. This may be a weakness in the writing, which sets up this question as the primary dilemma of the film, and as a result the crisis of journalistic ethics basically sneaks up on viewers. For some reviewers, this has been interpreted as the movie falling apart, but for me it's really the moment where it congealed from a Latin Primal Fear into something more interesting.

As a side note, it's surprising (to me at least) to see Leguizamo carry off a leading role. Previously, I'd mainly thought of him as a character actor or comic relief (his unfortunate turn in Spawn, for example). It's not accurate to say that here he boasts "star power," but he's certainly believable as a reporter who's chasing the spotlight as much as the truth. It's an understated performance, which is not something I thought I'd ever say about this actor.

November 29, 2006

Filed under: movies»reviews»foreign

District B13

This is not actually a movie. It's a sketch. An outline. A way for future film students to study the buddy-cop action film without being distracted from the structure by acting or clever dialogue.

B13 is a French film set in a future that extrapolates two trends--first, that the car-burning riots were symptoms of a class struggle that continued until the Parisians finally just walled off their criminal districts and abandoned them, and second, that parkour becomes a common urban sport. The latter is particularly important, because it's a big part of all the movie's chase scenes.

The basic plot is that a clean nuke has been stolen in one of the most dangerous criminal districts, and it will go off and kill everyone there unless one cop--teamed up, of course, with an edgy young native--can defuse it in 24 hours. Along the way, the plot hits all of the cliche points for one of these genre pictures: there's the family member held captive, the criminal with the heart of gold, the unbelievably deadly police officer, the tense conversation where the cop and sidekick agree to work together, and the tables turned on corrupt officials, finished with an unsupported "romance." The script seems embarrassed to be so blatant, and glosses by each of its plot points with almost a nod to the audience that yes, this is that part of the movie.

There's not necessarily anything wrong with such self-awareness, but the actors have so little chemistry with each other that it infects everything else with a kind of malaise. Say what you like about the Lethal Weapon series, perhaps the iconic example of the genre, but Glover and Gibson were fun to watch together. There's none of that rapport with anyone in District B13--maybe because, at just over an hour and twenty minutes, there's no time for it. In its quest for dizzying chase scenes and stunts, it speeds past everything else.

August 6, 2006

Filed under: movies»reviews»foreign


Wong Kar Wai has a style of framing a scene that I have honestly never seen from anyone else. He constantly uses negative space, shooting around walls and through small windows. There's an awareness of space in Wong's movies, emphasizing how people move through them, and how our man-made environments bring us together, or pull us apart.

2046 takes those elements, as well as most of the principle actors, from In the Mood for Love and Chung King Express. But where those movies were more focused, and their characters more distinctive, 2046 drifts from place to place. It does so beautifully--the cinematography lingers on the rich surroundings, and its color palette is saturated without being garish--but it doesn't really satisfy.

Theoretically, this is a follow-up to In the Mood for Love, taking place after Chow (Tony Leung) has moved on from his affair with a next-door neighbor in the previous film. He's now a playboy, sleeping around with a number of women. The scenes are shuffled, and interspersed with a sci-fi story Chow has been writing, about a man on a train to "2046" who falls in love with a broken android. Somehow, this story is meant to be tied to Chow's various flings, as he becomes involved with his new neighbor (Zhang Ziyi), remembers a past relationship with a professional gambler (Li Gong), and flirts (though without much heat) with his landlord's daughter (Faye Wong).

All of these are fine actors--Faye Wong in particular stole the show from Chung King Express, and Leung is usually convincing for both his comic and dramatic roles. But Wong Kar Wai seems to have locked almost everyone down into themselves for 2046, as if he's less interested in them as characters than as static elements for his composition. Zhang Ziyi is allowed the occasional character quirk, and Chow's editor Ping (a phenomenally ugly man) lends energy to the few minutes he has on screen. But the rest of the time, these characters are too bottled up for anyone to care--there are no cracks in Leung's debonair mask, and as such it's hard not to feel a little repulsed by him, if you feel anything at all. In the end, we're left without much character, much plot, or much spark.

Long story short: 2046 is a pretty slow two hours to look at beautifully-shot hotel rooms.

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