Monthly Archives: February 2010

Happy Weekend!

Review forthcoming.

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IMDb Top 250: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

WIPE VS. IMDb

Director: Edgar Wright

Screenplay: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg

IMDb rank: #232

IMDb user quote: “When my brother decided we were going to watch Shaun of the Dead, my initial reaction was ‘Oh God, this should be a load of rubbish.’ Well, how very wrong I was [. . .] I found that I was laughing, crying and cowering in fear all at the same time.” – mouse712, from United Kingdom, 10/10 review

Wipe’s take: I seem to recall that back in 2004, months before it was released theatrically in North America, Shaun of the Dead was being christened online as a slice of geek heaven by the infamous Harry Knowles and his staff of critics at aintitcool.com—a.k.a. fanboy central. It’s not difficult to see why Shaun clicked with the Ain’t it Cool crowd (whose readers I suspect frequent IMDb user boards as well), since the movie comes equipped with various geek-culture bona fides. For one, it’s written and directed by, and stars members of the cast and crew of British Channel 4 cult series Spaced (which up until recently I had confused with the BBC sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf—I was way off, but never mind). For another, the movie pays homage to the cult classic zombie films of director George A. Romero, meaning  that, in addition to its punning title, Shaun offers plenty enough in-jokes for Romero aficionados—and IMDb posters—to play spot-the-reference (e.g., Shaun works at Foree Electric, a hat-tip to actor Ken Foree of Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead [1978]). But most significantly of all, the film rewards genre familiarity—it’s such a rollicking good time because it plays so cleverly with zombie movie tropes, etc.—and thus is tailor-made for movie-nerd consumption.

Is it possible to be neither an internet fanboy (excuse the gendered term) nor a zombie-movie nut and still enjoy Shaun of the Dead? Sure, but I somehow doubt one could love the film (not to mention place it in a top 250) without identifying as one or both of these two species of viewer. I found the movie appealing enough in the early going, particularly for the charmingly offhand way it introduces the zombie apocalypse: bummed-out sales clerk Shaun (Simon Pegg) goes out one morning to grab a Coke at the corner deli and fails to register the fact that the groggy folks around him are the walking undead. Also amusing is a subsequent scene where Shaun and his slovenly roommate Ed (Nick Frost) discover that the “drunk girl” shambling around their backyard is not what she seems to be. It’s a near-constant parade of witty little visual jokes such as these that makes Shaun initially so easy to like. Also to its credit, the movie doesn’t oversell its jokes with flashy technical flourishes, à la Pegg, Wright and co.’s  subsequent genre send-up Hot Fuzz (2007), a film I found so stylistically abrasive and annoying (however intentional this might have been) that I had to switch it off after about an hour’s time.

I can’t say that Shaun of the Dead did much more than amuse me, however. Its attempts at pathos, particularly in certain late scenes between Shaun and his mum (Nicola Cunningham), never catch the right tone, despite Pegg’s ability to produce anguished tears on cue. I think this failure can be attributed to the film’s generally cheery nature: there’s something approaching delight in the way the film frames the predicament of Shaun and the others, and the more the movie winks at genre conventions (especially in the jokey manner in which the film’s zombies are dispatched, and later all-but domesticated), the further one has to strain to invest any real emotion in the material. As funny as the movie sometimes is, one misses the underlying moral and political seriousness of Romero’s zombie pictures–not to mention the social/familial/sexual currents that stir the Haitian voodoo classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943)–which help to remind you why zombies are such a resonant film subject in the first place. Romero’s zombie apocalypse enacted a radical confrontation with human values; if Shaun of the Dead has anything to say about values and relationships it doesn’t amount to much more than a lesson one might glean from a sitcom. All the emotional, social, and moral implications of the characters’ trauma vanish blissfully and tidily in the film’s silly denouement. Cue laugh-track, and fade out.

Does the movie merit top-250 status? No, but as far as zombie comedies go, it’s better than last year’s Zombieland.

-Cam

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Hausu (a.k.a. House) (1977)

Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi

Screenplay: Chiho Katsura

If you’re in the market for exceedingly bizarre and utterly sui generis horror-fantasy films that can also make you laugh until you’re sick, do yourself a favour and visit Hausu.

The plot of the film, such as it is, follows Japanese high-schooler Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) and her friends as they vacation at the country home of Oshare’s aunt (Yoko Minamida), a spinster with bleached white hair and sinister designs on the “unmarried” girls (does she seek revenge? repossession?). Enlisting the help of her demonic house and pet cat, the aunt subjects the schoolgirls to a series of increasingly baroque games of torture and ensnarement.

This macabre plot description does hardly any justice to the film; as Stephen Broomer writes of Hausu, “The story is secondary to its aesthetic character,” which is remarkable and very hard to describe. Perhaps I’m not aware of my own cinematic blind spots, but it’s impossible for me to think of another narrative film that offers anything to rival Hausu‘s non-stop battery of delirious, pervertedly funny, and all-together eye-popping imagery, especially in its final twenty minutes or so. (Argento and Bava share Obayashi’s pop art sensibilities, but can’t match his speed or prolificity.) It seems likely you’d have to look to the avant-garde for comparable cinematic insanity (some of Hausu‘s effects include the cutting up of compositions with animation and floating superimpositions of torsos, skulls, arms, etc.; as well as the use of varying intensities of colour, light, and camera speed from image to image); this makes sense when you read that director Obayashi began his career as an experimental filmmaker in Japan.

Another apt comparison may be comic books: each of Obayashi’s shots resembles a different panel, organized unto itself and containing a new candy-coloured visual invention, another gag, another giddy shock, refusing easy narrative continuity. Adding to this comic book flavour is my favourite character, Kung Fu, a high-flying, high-kicking schoolgirl played by Miki Jinbo, who engages in an epic battle against house furniture in the film’s manic climax.

Geez, just take a look at the trailer, will ya?

-Cam

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Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (The Baader Meinhof Complex) (2008)

Director: Uli Edel

Screenplay: Bernd Eichinger, Uli Edel, Stefan Aust (Book)

Early last year, a German friend of mine was going through a list of German films that I needed to see.  As he finished up his list, I couldn’t help but noticing that one film in particular – one film that had found its way into both the Oscar and BAFTA nominations for best foreign film that year – was missing.  “What about The Baader Meinhof Complex?” I asked.  His brow instantly furrowed and his mouth twisted up as though I had just forced him to eat something particularly foul.  “It’s shit,” he hissed, “Stay away from it.  Don’t even watch it.”  So adamant about me not seeing the film was he, that I actually did stay away from it.  Until now.  After deciding that it finally was time to make my own mind up about it all, I sought out Der Baader Meinhof Komplex and gave it a chance.

In the early 1970’s, a group of radical, left wing, militant German activists known as the RAF (Red Army Faction) or more commonly, The Baader-Meinhof Group, was formed.  Espousing Marxist-Leninist beliefs and a desire to overthrow what they believed to be a fascist German state, the group was responsible for numerous bombings, 34 murders and various bank robberies.  With that little taste of background, I’ve officially provided just as much, if not slightly more information about the group than the entire film does in its 150 minute running time.

Due to director Uli Edel’s desire to place the group’s actions over any actual insight into even one of its members, the film plays out as little more than a repetitive series of violent episodes.  Edel seems to feel that the film somehow moves at a better momentum with an entire host of zero/one dimensional characters.  Yes it’s clear that these people will sacrifice everything in order to pursue their revolutionary goals, but why?  Who are these people?  What leads a horde of middle class German twenty-somethings to wage war on the state in 1970?  (I’m assuming that it’s 1970 because one of the film’s most persistently annoying aspects is the lack of any sort of titles, leaving the viewer clueless as to specific dates, times and locations.)

As the film progresses, the characters become increasingly indistinguishable from one another – an intentional attempt at illustrating the suffocating homogeny of the group, perhaps, but monotonous all the same.  Bombs go off, guns are fired and group members are either arrested or killed without so much as a modicum of effort rendered toward showcasing more than just Rebellion.  To be completely honest, none of these characters really even seemed to like one another much, which is odd considering that their goals appeared to be one and the same.

The film does have its share of interesting and dare I say intriguing moments, but what tension or excitement these build up is quickly diluted by repeating the same processes again and again without any further insight into what’s actually taking place.  The great German actress Martina Gedeck’s portrayal of Ulrike Meinhof comes the closest to a protagonist as the film has to offer, but Meinhof as an upper class, socially conscious journalist who leaves her adulterous husband is hardly enough to justify her joining the ranks of the RAF.  In the end we’re left with zero understanding of the issues that surrounded the RAF and because of this, a trip to Wikipedia would be a more productive means of trying to come to terms with these people than 150 minutes of ‘splosions ever could be.

-mike

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Happy Weekend!

Why aren’t entire movies made this way? It’s a new form of musical.

Incidentally, favourite message board comment: “Sinise, FTW!” (at 1:13)

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Coming up at Wipe…(update)

So it looks as though we’re going to move ahead with our plans (previously mentioned here) to tackle the IMDb top 250 in an ongoing series of articles over the next year or so (who knows at this point how long the task will take?). Look for this “IMDb 250” series to start up in the approaching days, once all the kinks have been ironed out (formatting, methodology, etc.).

More exciting news coming down the pipeline: in addition to reviewing the IMDb top 250, a few brave souls at Wipe have decided to take it upon themselves to seek out as many of the IMDb bottom 100-rated movies as possible, and subject them to no-less-than-rigorous exegesis.

There are some pretty lively titles to be found on the list, which can be seen here. Wipe is certainly anxious to learn what ungodly cinematic terrors await in films like Die Hard Dracula; Pocket Ninjas (starring Robert Z’Dar!); and The Barbaric Beast of Boggy Creek, Part II. And yet, we can already tell you that at least one of the films on the list–It’s Pat: The Movie–might be a masterpiece. So the review process on the bottom 100 could prove more contentious than first meets the eye.

There is of course one major obstacle to reviewing the bottom 100: a lot of these films will be awfully difficult to find. We’ll do our best to get ’em all, but we might need your help with some of the more esoteric titles, if you happen to be someone who specializes in tracking down obscure foreign horror films and the like. In the coming weeks, Wipe’ll be on the hunt for the 100, keeping you apprised of the movies we find, and the ones we don’t. Expect reviews for these cellar dwellers to begin sometime between now and the beginning of March.

Thanks very much for hanging with us!

-Wipe

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Overlord (1975)

Director: Stuart Cooper

Screenplay: Christopher Hudson, Stuart Cooper

World War II is possibly one of the most difficult subjects to aptly portray on film.  That’s not to say that it isn’t attempted again and again to varying degrees of success, but more recent fare such as Edward Zwick’s Defiance, Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds lean toward frivolity as a result of their historical inaccuracy and lack of depth.  It’s hardly surprising then, that of the monstrous offering of WWII films, only a small percentage can be viewed as anything more than cheap entertainment.

Perhaps it seems strange to fault a film for being nothing more than entertainment. Yet when it comes to depicting the horrors of World War II, film does indeed have a duty to uphold.  Historical accuracy is primary, but also needed are attempts at preserving the fragments and complexities that make up war.  Exploration of these aspects not only strengthens what we know of the war, but also creates the opportunity for an audience to consider perspectives beyond those typically framed by the standard war film.

For its part, Overlord is above and beyond the standard war film, playing out like a feverish dream and toying with the intimacy one might experience from secretly reading someone’s diary.  The film practically breathes, it’s so deeply entrenched in what it means for a young man to literally hand over his life to the state in a time of war.  Melding actual archival World War II footage into the film, Overlord riffs on neo-realism several decades after it was made fashionable by filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Kenji Mizoguchi.  The story follows Tom, a quiet 20-year-old, as he’s called up for basic training before ultimately taking part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

The film itself is pure poetry: from the direction, to the dialogue to the seamless integration of archival war footage alongside the brilliant camera work of cinematographer John Alcott.  All of it induces a powerful range of emotions: confusion, fear, love, innocence lost, helplessness and finally a morose acceptance of it all.  As Tom submits himself to the state’s will, he’s become what he’s trained to be: a soldier; an empty vessel designed strictly to complete an objective, come what may.

Though Overlord doesn’t investigate the war as a whole, it does a superb job of investigating a life – a single solitary life, and what it means to simply relinquish that life for what would be considered a greater cause.  In the process of this,  Overlord makes no judgements on these circumstances, but it does encourage its audience above all, to feel.

-mike

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