Happy Birthday, Quentin!!!

As the title states, Quentin Tarantino turned 50 today. So, on such a splendid occasion I’d like to wish you all the best the universe can come up with for you, and for myself I’d like to wish at least another fifty years of awesomeness in cinema that you’ve been providing me with until now.

 

As I’m writing this, I’m actually watching “Jackie Brown” – the least watched Tarantino movie ever. I could really come up with the best 50 scenes from Tarantino movies ever, or arrange his movies in order of fantasticness (Top three being 3. Inglorious Basterds, 2. Reservoir Dogs, 1. Pulp Fiction), but it’s all been done before. Nevertheless, I’d like to say that Quentin is a special person for me (and I’m not saying this just  because I’m inebriated). He held my hand while I ventured into pop-culture and dipped my toes in cinema. Quentin Tarantino will always have a special place in my heart and I would like to see at least 30 fantastic films with his name on them, just because I’m selfish.

So, I decided to give you the very first short film shot by Tarantino. You can know a man best by his shoes, right? So here they are. Enjoy.

And again, Quentin – if you’re reading this (and you’re probably not) – Happy birthday. You’re one of the reasons I am who I am. Forget all the actors you made, my taste in cinema got heavily influenced by your work and I can only thank you for it.

“Welcome to the Punch” – An awkward open-handed slap at best…

So, Olympus has fallen in the States. That’s cool and all, but what about us – poor European souls living across the pond? We want to watch some action too, you know. Not always, but every once in a while… and I can’t really wait until mid-April for Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman to give me what is rightfully mine.

I needed my fix now, so I decided I would go and see “Welcome to the Punch”. Nothing would go wrong, now would it? Yet, I have to say, as much as I appreciated the effort, this flick left me in a state of unfulfillment  I feel I’m about to go on a rant, but I promise I’ll make it short(ish). I mean, it’s not a bad movie, not at all. But it’s not great either; far from it. But first things first…

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“Welcome to the Punch” is a British cop thriller about, well, a British cop Max (crispy with a dark twist, James McAvoy) who – back when he was fresh, young and over-ambitious – once let his arrogance get the best of him and, while trying to catch a baddie, Jacob Sternwood, (stone-cold Mark Strong) who had just about pulled a heist of the century, not only allowed him to flee with an obscene amount of cash, but also walked away knee-capped and humiliated by him. Fast-forward a couple years; Max is now a brooding, cynical detective who by enlarge has given up on normal life. Wherever he goes, the shadow of his past failure follows him closely, be it in a form of nasty remarks from his colleagues at the station or as physical pain still present in his injured leg. All of a sudden, Sternwood’s adult son is found shot in the stomach as a result of some shady deal gone wrong and Jacob decides to come back from his refuge in order to see about his family , which gives Max a chance to meet his nemesis once more and settle the score once and for all. What he doesn’t know, however, is that while doing so, he would find himself right in the middle of something much bigger and that his personal vendetta would have to wait a little.

Now, did I mention that I actually like European cinema? That’s because I do. I like how action movies can be made in a way that doesn’t desperately want to be a cheap Hollywood knock-off. And in that regard “Welcome to the Punch” is definitely a good flick. The characters are nicely cut out, the ambiance is dark and shady, the acting is convincing… But sadly, the film lacks severely when it comes to a story. And we all know that a good action flick needs a gripping story-line that bolts you into your seat. Otherwise the film comes across as sloppy and amateurish. And, well, it does…

I don’t want to say here that the script is dumb or anything to that effect, but honestly, a good action movie needs a dose of healthy cliché to look believable. I didn’t mind the over-the-top-I-can-have-a-dark-side-too James McAvoy, because I genuinely like the guy and he actually managed to get me on board with his performance. Even Mark Strong (as Jacob Sternwood) was more or less OK for me with his villain persona of post-face lift Vinnie Jones. It’s the direction where the movie suffered the most, in my opinion. It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that Eran Creevy is not the most seasoned of directors. He clearly borrowed a bit from the veterans of the genre, though I found it more pleasurable than irritating. Although his framing and approach at action sequences go down really well and amplify the noir feel of the film, he clearly didn’t have a clue about how to tell the story without losing the plot in the process.

 

It actually takes a bit of thought to come up with a reliable way of selling a story that has at least three different narratives in it, multi-faceted characters, good old cop drama bingo and a vital twist. You can’t just show me things and say that they’re important. It’s a cardinal sin to present me with the clues and commence a monologue that will explain everything. If you need your characters to verbally explain what is going on, then I think you’re not making a good use of the imagery. The viewer needs to figure things out on his own, you know, and it kind of kills all the fun when you point your finger towards the important details. The story quickly turns out to be too convoluted to be paced reasonably and I simply stopped caring after some time. Not that I didn’t follow, far from it. I just didn’t have the time that’s necessary to develop a bond with the protagonists. And whenever the pieces eventually fell into place, the story was too fizzed-out to make a half decent splash. Like I said – sloppy.

Perhaps “Welcome to the Punch” would have made a better TV show than it was a movie. I believe that it takes more skill, than what Eran Creevy had in his toolbox, to pull off a show like this. I’m sorry but he’s no Martin Scorsese and “Welcome to the Punch” is not “The Departed” or “Ronin”. It is, on the other hand, a half-decent action flick. We all know that all the action with no story is not the way to go in this day and age, but going all the way up to ‘all the action and a complex story in one box’ is just as well a recipe for a disaster, and I hold the director responsible for all of this.

“Welcome to the Punch” tried to run before it learned to walk – that’s the nicest way I can call what I think about this movie. While the action is there and the actors are making a real effort, whatever they tried to come up with got shot in the head and splattered unceremoniously on the screen by a story that could have been either a tad simpler or paced a bit slower (there’s nothing wrong with making your movie longer), so that we could see everything we needed to see. Instead, I was told a story about people who told me a story about other people that I didn’t really know or cared about. And that’s just wrong.

Rant over.

On the proclivity of Hollywood to put numbers on things…

While browsing through movie-related news couple of mornings ago I couldn’t help but notice that a huge part of what is going on in the world of film is related to various sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, resurrections and such. I’m sure someone more proficient in English language than me could find some more words that start with ‘re’ that reflect on the sad state of things in the movie industry. Just as I’m writing this, “Star Trek 2” (A sequel to a reboot to a reboot) is slowly making its way towards the big screens, together with the third “Iron Man” only to make way for another “Thor” and “Captain America” this year. We all know that the “Star Wars” franchise is being dusted off by J.J. Abrams and another “Transformers” movie is in the works. Oh, and another remake of “Godzilla” is being shot right now as well. I thought for a second that something’s not right in here, because it would seem that almost every other major project made in Hollywood could easily have a number after its title, so I decided to have a look for myself.

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I took the time to plow through all the major movie releases (thanks to Wikipedia) in the last decade (2002-2012) and fished out all the films that were either sequels, prequels, remakes or reboots to any other movie. Plus, I also included the re-releases as well, because I think they are the most blatant examples of one’s lack of creativity. That’s right, if you want to make more money without lifting a finger, release “Titanic” theatrically once again. It will cost you nothing, but surely you’ll find people, for whom the DVD was just not enough.

chart 1 Anyways, in my search I managed to find 374 such movies. Now, bear in mind that I might have missed some here and there, as the Internet isn’t perfect and neither am I. Especially the further back in time you go, the less reliable these numbers might get, simply because 10 years ago the number of people taking their time and effort to put something up here was much smaller than nowadays and I can’t simply assume perfect linearity in data collection in the Internet, now can I? Nevertheless, I think the trends would stay unaffected even with growing statistical uncertainty here, so I think I’m fine and I can continue rambling. One more thing, these 374 films I found among wide releases in the US. If I had to flick through all the Bollywood pictures I’d probably kill myself instead.

OK, so where was I? Out of 6558 movies noted in box offices (according to The-Numbers.com) in the last ten years, 374 were based on an already existing movie and that constituted 5.7% of the pool. Note here, that the percentage might be slightly higher, because of my inability to find all of those pesky sequels out there. Out of those 374 movies 62% were direct sequels, 29% were remakes, 4% were reboots, 3% were re-releases and 2% were prequels. If one decides to group them together, we end up with 64% (continuations and the like) against 36% (re-imaginings and such). That already says that Hollywood likes to put numbers on things more than it likes to dig out old corpses to revive.

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It’s fine and all, but those numbers didn’t reflect the trends I was looking for, so I broke them down by year and that’s when the patterns emerged. While you can clearly see the upward trend in the number of ‘sub-creative movies’ across the decade (with the profits following a similar, yet more moderate trend), one can already see that the most decisive rise in production of those films commenced right around 2008. When the movies are further broken down into sub-categories, the pattern becomes almost impossible to miss. While it would seem that number of remakes fluctuates across the decade peaking in 2004 and 2010, the number of direct sequels remained steady throughout 2002-2009 and then suddenly jumped in 2010 by nearly 20% and stayed there until the present day. Now that’s something to think about.

chart 3 I can actually understand the behavior in the number of remakes, because these used to be often subject to fads and related band-wagon mentality. For instance, I believe that the surge in remake productions of 2004-2005 can be attributed to the wave of Asian terror cinema that swept the world around the turn of the century and Hollywood labels wanted to capitalize on that phenomenon. These were the years where “The Ring”, “The Grudge”, “Dark Water” and the like got released. Shortly after, the American horror cinema of the 70’s and 80’s got revived to contrast all the long-haired girls walking out of TV sets, which sparked a new wave of horror in Hollywood and contributed somehow to the increase in sequels that followed. However, none of the “Wrong turn” or “Final Destination” franchises can explain what happened between 2009 and 2010. A flat bump by 20% has to happen for a reason.

If you have a look at how the total number of movies registered in Box Offices during that time looked (thank you again The-Numbers.com), you would notice immediately a sudden drop in produced movies that took place around 2008/2009; Hollywood’s output got reduced by well over 30% within two years. At the same time – which really takes the biscuit here – the percentage of ‘sub-creative’ cinema doubled (from 4% to 9%). These further emphasize the importance of a short period of 2008-2009. What could have possibly happened to effectively derail widely-understood creativity in Hollywood?

chart 4 I think everybody knows that this was the time when shit hit the fan and – thanks to banks, mind you – we all got slapped on the wrists; some more than others. People lost their jobs and houses, the global economy shrank substantially, countries went bust… Just turn on the news. It would seem that while all this was unfolding, all the producers in LA went ‘oh crap, we’re going to get poor now’. Surely, when people have to save their money, the luxuries like going out (including cinema) get axed first. In order to prevent that from happening, some things needed to be done. Gone were the artsy risky passion projects… Out with cerebral story lines  What we needed were movies that guaranteed box office success. And what can be more reliable than a well-executed sequel? chart 5

If you look at the Top 20 highest grossing movies of all times, 14 of them can be classified as sequels. And yes, I counted “Skyfall” and “The Avengers” as sequels that they are – deal with it. If you look at the last 11 years (2002-2012, the bracket for my investigations), 9 out of 11 highest grossing films each year were sequels. I’m now not at all surprised that in late 2007 and early 2008 all the studios decided to devote much greater funds towards producing ‘numbered’ movies. After all, they bring revenue. As a result, with the total number of movies produced yearly cut by 30% post-2008, the revenue managed to retain its growing trend. So, yay… Thumbs up – producers, you are getting richer. At the expense of us, lowly ticket-buyers who want something more than another “Iron-Man” (who am I kidding; I’ll probably go and watch it anyway). At least now I know that I can point my finger towards the bean-counting producers, for shame! Why is the movie industry in such a sad state? Apart from what others already pointed out, it’s simply because the studios desperately wanted to get rich while everybody was getting poorer.

Desperate times – desperate measures… and suitably disenchanting results. Now, let’s see what’s happening with the new Star Wars…

 

Shortcake #9 – “Biting Elbows – Bad Motherfucker (Insane Office Escape 2)”

If you haven’t seen this already, then immediately do so. I don’t think this film qualifies exactly to meet the criteria for a short, because it’s a music video and all. Still, you rarely see a music clip that well done. And you really see that the Russian boys who made the clip (and the band as well) pulled all the stops went all out – like they would have any way.

I have to say, I just had a blast and I didn’t even care for the music in the background. You’re in for a five-minute roller-coaster ride full of adrenaline, violence, first-person shooting, blood, free-running, and did I say adrenaline? That’s right, “Insane Office Escape 2” is a mash-up of “Reservoir Dogs”, “Max Payne” and “The Matrix” put in one continuous shot filmed from a hand-held (or rather head-strapped) perspective. I’m in awe of how well this thing was put together. The action doesn’t slow down, the special effects are convincing and the violence is just fantastic. Seriously, I had to watch it twice to notice that it is, in fact, a music video.

Yup, that’s it. Go on and watch and then watch it again. It’s that good. I even watched it mute once – the same adrenaline rush. I actually feel sorry for the band right now, as it was supposed to illustrated their music. Well, tough luck.

“Identity Thief” – A comedy that forgot how to comedy…

How did I end up watching “Identity Thief”? I’m not sure I know exactly how that happened, but it sure resembled something of a compromise. I had been planning for a couple of days already to devote last week’s Sunday Morning Cinema Excursion (which was promptly renamed as Bank Holiday Monday Cinema Excursion) either to “Oz – The Great and Powerful” or “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”. And I have to say I had been leaning towards the latter due to my unresolved childhood attachment to Jim Carrey. Since My Lovely Wife expressed her desire to join me this week, the final decision ended up being more of a collaborative effort with me caving in a little bit. She didn’t quite fancy neither the Sam Raimi’s “Oz…” (I myself wasn’t exactly excited about that one either) nor Jim Carrey’s and Steve Carrell’s comedy, so in order to reach the verdict, we both agreed to like Jason (almost typed ‘Patrick’ there, sheesh) Bateman  and Melissa McCarthy enough to give them a chance to entertain us in “Identity Thief”. I know it didn’t quite garner the best reviews out there, but you only live once, right?

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Now, the story is dead simple: A guy called Sandy (Jason Bateman) is your usual every-man you’d find in a big corporation – an underpaid, silently disgruntled middle-aged desk jockey that hates his job but needs it to provide for his growing family, who becomes a victim of identity theft. I guess he didn’t get the memo that you should never ever ever ever disclose any personal data over the phone. As a result, the thief (Melissa McCarthy) takes a bit of an advantage of Sandy’s female-sounding name (It’s unisex!) and drives his credit account into a morbid debt by binge-shopping and drinking herself into a stupor in night clubs. As a result – as you’d probably imagine – Sandy’s life turns into a nightmare and the only way he could bring it back to normal is to go all the way to Florida and find the perpetrator. I don’t fully understand the logical leap that was taken there by the writers, but I can live with that. Let’s just assume for the benefit of the movie that the police in this fantasy world are even more ineffective than in real life – a scary notion indeed. It’s probably best not to ask any uncomfortable questions, as it clearly seems that this part of the script was written at an ungodly hour, or something to that effect.

I think that “Identity Thief” was planned as a road trip-like comedy and managed to stick to the model for the most part. I have to say that there are some good moments where hilarity ensues and they are mostly owed to Melissa McCarthy’s improvised (?) excursions that most likely weren’t meant to look like that. Sadly, those were few and far between and it vastly diminished the comedic factor of “Identity thief”. Bateman’s character was nicely done – laughable, relatable and cute – but I guess he is more of a one-trick pony in that regard. Nevertheless, his character’s ill-placed logic and down-to-earth attitude were fine additions to McCarthy’s comedy here. If you’ve seen “Horrible bosses”, you’d know what I mean here.

Yeah, we don’t live in a perfect world and those scolding reviews had to have had their foundations somewhere. It turns out that “Identity thief” forgets ‘how to comedy’ half way through the film and turns into a soggy feel-good comedy that lasts until the ending credits… well, almost. But anyway, what could have been a decent picture that had ‘stupid’ written all over it, ended up being the manbearpig of comedy. I can’t really tell whether I just watched a no-holds-barred-sweaty-ass-in-your-face comedy, a sloppy feel-good redemption story or an awkward rom-com that forgot to ‘rom’ in its attempt to ‘com’. Uhh…

All in all, “Identity thief” wasn’t a complete disaster, but it didn’t deliver as well. So, I can’t really decide here, because I loved certain parts of it (mainly the first half of the movie that is more comedic than the other). However, the touchy-feely mood that gradually clouded the film was definitely enough to annoy me. In the end, I’m glad I couple-watched it today with My Wife, because had I been on my own there, I don’t know if I could last until the credits rolled. Then again, had I been alone, I would have watched “Burt Wonderstone” instead, which will have to wait a bit.

St. Paddy-related contemplations

So, it is St. Patrick’s Day today again, or rather was, for the most part. Probably, most of the western world associates this day with parades, wearing green, drinking green beer, drinking green shots and various other means of getting inebriated. Not in my parts, though. Well – OK – there are parades, people get hammered and so on, but almost always The St. Paddy’s Day up here in Belfast brings a thick political cloud along with it. And as the helicopters are looming somewhere overhead (a tell-tale sign that something’s up in this town) I can only presume that what started off as a nationwide celebration of Irish heritage once again ended up flaring some trouble at the interface between the Loyalists and the Republicans.

That got me thinking again. Even this morning – which started off rather sad and gloomy – as I was finishing my morning coffee I pondered a question of how Northern Ireland receives only one kind of publicity. I remembered when I was young and most of the knowledge of the outside world was delivered to my brain through movies and quite understandably so, as the majority of information our mind gathers through the sense of vision. Most often I would see something in films that interested me and researched the subjects on my own afterwards (and bear in mind that the Internet was either nowhere to be seen at that time, or I didn’t have access to it because of financial reasons). Nevertheless, the initial spark usually came from the screen. I should say that for the most part, there’s nothing wrong with it, because in the end any biased opinion presented on said screen stood a chance of being rectified by other reliable sources, so my knowledge of the world was not exactly Hollywoodized, if I may define it this way.

However, throughout the years, almost always when I had a chance to see a film that either took place in NI, or its story drew from that place using other means, the resulting film would invariably take up a subject of the age-old conflict between Catholics and Protestants that ravaged this land. Even today, the divide is still there lurking beyond eye’s reach, smoldering in silence and re-igniting every now and then in short bursts of widely condemned violence. But other than that, life out here is not all that different to any parts of the UK or the world for that matter. People go to work, children go to school… Shopping, cinema, tourism, music scene and all that jazz… And yet, if I speak to people from the outside world and mention that I live in Belfast, their brains immediately project on the screens of their imaginations images of violence, IRA gunmen, people in balaclavas throwing petrol bombs, burning cars, and military Humvee’s roaming the streets – the whole caboodle. Why?

I should probably point the finger at the news outlets for reporting only the juiciest most terrifying news from that region, but after all it is their job. No-one in, say, Canada would probably want to read or watch the news about the difficulties in reinvigorating Northern Irish economy and such. In film, however, there are no such restrictions and yet, the vast majority of movies, that touch Northern Ireland in some way, draw from The Troubles. I think I have yet to see a film that while set or centered on this region doesn’t really mention the conflict. Or maybe I could turn it into a challenge? Surely, there has to be a way of shooting a love story in here without tainting it with it. I think that a yet to be released film called “Good Vibrations” might just be what I’m looking for here and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Other than that, I can’t really tell. Maybe “The Magdalene Sisters” could fall into this category, but I couldn’t really tell now.

I believe I can actually turn it into a mini-project of sorts – find and compile films that do not scream ‘Troubles’ but say ‘Northern Ireland’. I hope that this year’s Belfast Film Festival might extend a helping hand on the matter. Additionally, I think I might compile my own ‘best-of’ list of films that take up the subject of Troubles, and there is quite a few gems in that category, so I should get on with it.

Meanwhile, it’s just past midnight, St. Paddy’s is over and I should probably wrap it up and say ‘good-night’.

 

Shortcake #8 – “Run” and “A Handful of Pennies”

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy… That’s pretty much been the theme of my week and maybe that’s why the theme of tonight’s Shortcake is rather grim. I decided to highlight two short films today, both of which are of the shocking kind. Because of their nature I don’t think I should go into details of their respective stories – I simply think that the shock and surprise factors are most important for films like that.

 

The first short of the day is called “Run”. It’s a compact 7-minute long story of Sam – an American by accent – who travels through Europe like young Americans do, and writes a letter to his mother from the road. I can’t say more than that, but I wanted to say that this short film really messed with my brain. Since, I believe, that was the premise of “Run” – to make you feel uneasy and disturbed – I want to congratulate Mat Johns on a job well done. He single-handedly directed, shot and edited the entirety of this film, which might be what is responsible for the very personal and discomforting feel “Run” imposes on a viewer. In short, this film is a bite-sized piece of Park Chan-Wook-approved painful cinema.

 

The remaining entry in today’s Shortcake is going to be “A handful of pennies” directed by a duo of E.E. Charlton-Trujillo and Josh Flowers, and written by Michael Peake. Briefly speaking, this film is just a conversation. A conversation between a hunter and prey, wherein one party is determined to do whatever it takes to break the other party’s spirit. I’d say, in contrast to “Run” – even though they are both shocking and violent – “A handful of pennies” reminds me more of a sequence from a full-feature movie that has never been made. We don’t know where the characters come from… We don’t know who they are. The only thing we know is the reason for them sitting at the same table. As the story unfolds, the viewer is left in yearning for more. I would like to see how the characters resolved their issue and maybe that’s why this film does its job, because the remainder of the story can be written by your own imagination… whatever way you shall please…

That sums up this week’s instalment of Shortcake. You’ve got two films that revel in the shock and violence, but each of them holds their ground on its own. “Run” is more of a fleeting novella about keeping up appearances that quickly spins out into horror, whereas “A handful of pennies” is story of a psychotic guy who doesn’t like being played by anyone and has a weird personal relationship with Dr Pepper. Enjoy!

 

“Side effects” – One part suspense, one part Jude Law and a pinch of Hitch…

It’s with a deep sense of regret I’m writing these words, because – unless he changes his mind – Steven Soderbergh is not going to direct any more movies, and if “Side effects” were supposed to be his last words, then so be it. At least he went down with his pride left intact… mostly.

It’s rare these days to enjoy a good detective story – thrilling and suspenseful. It seems that the Hitchcockian way has been completely abandoned in favor of cheap plots, dubious character development, violence, jump scares and pointless twists. That’s right. Ever since M. Night Shyamalan came along, a good story has no longer been needed to achieve a good commercial result. One needed only a revolting twist at the end. Therefore, many thrillers would become reliant on them to the point of forgetting about the structure of the plot, because it was all going to be OK when the twist is revealed. Not cool at all, I might say.

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Therefore, I welcomed “Side effects” with arms wide open. In short, the newest and last big screen picture signed by Steve Soderbergh pays due homage to Hitchcockian traditions. We are introduced to a trio of characters: Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, who – post Lisbeth Salander – looks shockingly attractive), who struggles with depression while waiting for her incarcerated husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to come back home and help get their lives back together, and Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) – Emily’s psychiatrist. We meet Emily when she’s about to get her hubbie back from prison and just as they’re attempting to resume their married life and get back on track, Emily’s long suppressed depression finally manifests itself in a form of suicidal tendencies. Following a failed attempt at her own life she ends up in a hospital where she meets Dr Banks, who offers her counselling to treat her now rather obvious and severe depression. It quickly becomes apparent that Emily’s case is like none other as she doesn’t respond well to any medication or treatment, so – in the throes of desperation and following Emily’s suggestion – Banks prescribes her a totally new anti-depressive that’s just been released on the market. And it quickly turns out that this new drug – Ablixa – has very severe side effects.

This is the point from which the story takes flight into a downward spiral wherein Dr Banks needs to risk everything (his wife, his stepson, his practice, his reputation and his life) in order to solve the mystery of Ablixa, understand and cure Emily and save himself from becoming a victim to whomever is pulling the strings.

Now, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed “Side effects”. That was exactly what I needed and I think it was a good way for Soderbergh to part ways with the big screen cinema. The story was well-crafted and carefully paced, so that the detective aspect of the plot was actually very engaging. I think that the very Hitchcockian archetype of ‘the wrong man’ was perfectly exploited here and Jude Law did his job very well.

 

However, I wouldn’t be myself if I failed to point out that Jude Law’s character and the whole story as a result (he is after all the pivotal pawn in this mysterious game of chess) would have been far more engaging if it hadn’t been for Vinessa Shaw – the actress portraying Banks’ wife – Deirdre. I mean, you can’t really find a more lifeless piece of wood of an actress than that, which makes the whole movie suffer across the board whenever she is around. I think, what we were supposed to see was how the doctor’s life slowly falls apart as he becomes more and more involved with the mystery of Ablixa, but instead we witnessed a wife so appallingly annoying and whiny that I literally cheered for her leaving the screen once and for all. I secretly hoped for her being hit by a bus or something, because she was simply a spanner thrown in the gears of a perfectly running suspenseful story.

Now that I finally got that off my chest, I can only congratulate both Jude Law and Rooney Mara on their very convincing work. I am not entirely sure what to say about the very cold and calculated performance of Catherine Zeta-Jones as the distant and enigmatic Dr Siebert, and that’s because something tells me that she was just playing herself there. But why should I bother? It fitted the story perfectly, so all is fine with the world again.

“Side effects” ended up a very good thriller with a detective slant and a well-fitting ending that did not overshadow the rest of the plot with its twisty-ness held at acceptable levels. I think Soderbergh did a very fine job here (again with a helping hand from Scott Z. Burns – author of “Contagion”, who wrote the script) by presenting us with a film that touches on a very important subject in these recent times – namely our reliance on pharmaceuticals. The movie exemplifies our inner fears and phobias that we sometimes associate with modern medicine. I think everybody knows at least one person who would identify themselves with the sentiments that “Side effects” brings up. It’s almost every day I hear about how big pharmaceutical companies are plotting conspiracies to get us all killed or worse – zombiefied by their secretively addictive medicines, and how the only thing that counts for them is monetary profit, or how they have no respect for us – their customers.

I think Soderbergh’s “Side effects” touch on these problems in a very subtle way by using our own fears to fuel the story, thus making it even more compelling. And to my vivacious satisfaction, the film ends up straying away from making any political pseudo-scientific nonsense statements on the matter, which saved Soderbergh from looking like a semi-educated judgmental fundamentalist conspiracy theorist, which I hope he’s not.

In the end, I have to say that I hope Soderbergh changes his mind. Fair enough, “Side effects” is a very good way to leave the scene on a good note, but still I secretly hope he would come back and give me another ride like this one. All things considered, I think “Side effects” was a very good movie and I’m sure as hell that if The Great Alfred was still alive, he’d gladly direct it himself – and with a similar net result. Maybe he’d give Jude Law’s character to a woman, but other than that, “Side effects” by Hitchcock would look more or less the same.

“Stoker” – It runs in the family…

Now, that was a film I was looking forward to seeing. Park Chan-Wook’s work was always quite a challenge for me and the minute I learned he was going to direct his American debut, I knew straight away it was going to be something to remember. Anyone familiar with Chan-Wook’s “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for…” films would know exactly what I mean here. I watched them all back in the days of my infatuation with far-east cinema. Yep, I watched them, I loved them and I had a hard time convincing myself to watch them again. That’s the type of cinema you’re in for when you’re about to see something with Park Chan-Wook’s stamp of approval on it.

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Right, so let’s get to the crux of it – the story. As you probably know, it is the most important feature in any Chan-Wook’s film. Right after it goes the imagery, but I shall get to that later on. On the subject of the storytelling – it is imperative for his films to kick you in the groin and laugh at you while you’re on the ground squirming in pain and discomfort. If you saw “Oldboy”, then you know that feeling more than you’d like to. “Stoker”, however, doesn’t even come close to that level, but it does provide a solid two hours of disturbing and uncomfortable experience. Maybe it’s the fact it was penned for your average westerner and in Korea things are more likely to be taken to extremes… I don’t know.

Interestingly, the script was written by someone I would never expect to come up with something quite like that – none other than Wentworth Miller. If you don’t recall the name, perhaps “Prison Break” would ring any bells. That’s right; the actor (by the way, he has devoted most of his career to stage acting) who played Michael Scofield proudly stands behind the “Stoker’s” story line.

So, what is it all about? “Stoker” tells us a story of a young adolescent girl – India (Mia Wasikowska), whose life is terribly disturbed by her father’s death – right on her 18th birthday. She is left completely broken by the fact that her dad has died in a car accident. She hates her mother (Nicole Kidman) and she is a rather awkward teenager in her own right – so she simply ends up alone in her world, devoid of her father, with whom she had a very special relationship. India’s life gets even more complicated by a sudden reappearance of her father’s long lost brother – Charlie (Matthew Goode), who shows up unexpectedly at the funeral and from that point onward, he forces his way into India’s and her mother’s lives. Nobody knows anything about Charlie’s past or his intentions and it quickly becomes apparent that his plans are of the evil kind.

“Stoker” isn’t exactly your regular family drama, nor it is a regular crime story. It is, in short, a very weird – and I’d say kinky – experience. It required a bit of post-screening thinking for me to get certain things right in my head. For instance, it was almost impossible to immediately grasp how complicated India’s situation was. It wasn’t clearly laid out in the open. I think that India’s grief had something to do with the fact that her father’s death left her in some sort of a limbo – in the nothingness that lies between adolescence and adulthood. It was her father who every year would give her a pair of shoes for her birthday. Always the same childish kind, but a tad bigger and because he died, he never got the chance to let his daughter become a woman.

Instead, life sends India her mysterious uncle, whom she never knew. And it is him who somehow takes over the reins dropped by India’s father and who starts wearing his shoes around the house. This is where “Stoker” becomes really unpleasant, because we get to see how Charlie attempts to establish an intimate connection both with India and her mother. This bond becomes the catalyst for India to break out of her shell and become a full-grown woman. But who she is, or who she’d become is a whole different story. It will soon turn out that Charlie’s predatory influence will have a profound impact on India’s life.

 

I have to say that “Stoker” leaves your sense of humanity a bit disturbed when the screening is over. My mind was totally occupied with turmoil of mixed emotions, but not towards the movie itself. I think that “Stoker” pricked my moral code in some way and its unsettling imagery somehow affected my psyche… which is good, because that’s what you’d expect from Park Chan-Wook. Every character and every scene in “Stoker” are filthy in some unspoken way. Therefore, all throughout the film I had this weird feeling in the back of my head, as if I was doing something wrong and forbidden. All that gets further exacerbated with every scene, from India’s awkward way of being, through Charlie’s lurking in the shadows like Norman Bates and watching India in his voracious way, India’s sexual initiations and her sudden horrifying emergence… By the end of the film, “Stoker” is a tsunami of agitating images which drift further and further away from what we consider normal or acceptable.

What also helps the movie stick with you after you’ve left the cinema is how it was shot and imaged. At some point I believe that dialogue in this film becomes secondary and you could probably continue watching while not paying attention to what the characters say at all. Every shot in “Stoker” looks meticulously planned and perfectly executed. All the angles are right and in retrospect I would say that there was no scene in this film that didn’t serve a purpose there. It was almost as if the director instinctively knew how to merge these scenes together, in order to amplify the symphony of unpleasant dread that “Stoker” definitely is. I dare say it is pure artistry, because it’s near impossible to design something like that in a mathematical and logical way without making the film look artificial.

All things considered, I think “Stoker” was a phenomenal piece that should surely put Park Chan-Wook in the Hollywood landscape. At the same time, the film retains Chan-Wook’s very distinctive touch, yet doped with a fair amount of Hitchcock’s influence. I mean, the way characters are written (with Charlie looking to me as if he escaped from “Psycho”) and the way the mystery hangs in there like a sword ready to fall on our heads at any moment – they all scream Hitchcock to me. Nonetheless, Park Chan Wook’s brush ascertains once and for all that “Stoker” is, after all, his own creation and should be remembered as such – it was unforgettable.

Shortcake #7 – “Rampage: Project Vermillion”

This week has not been exactly normal and due to several unforeseen circumstances my writing got terribly disrupted. Anyways, I managed to go and see “Stoker” and I intended to have the review written and up online by now, but hey…

Meanwhile, why don’t you have a look at “Rampage: Project Vermillion ? It’s a very nice short that takes the monster movie genre with a small twist. It’s done on a budget which shows, but in my view, the nature of the special effects give “Rampage” a nostalgic and hipsterish gojira-esque feel. However, the Cloverfield-like way of shooting the monster sequences (shaky camera movement and out-of-focus imagery) conceals any shortcomings of the technical department and gives the whole movie a modern look. Surprisingly enough, it’s not the effects, but a simple conversation that takes up the bulk of “Rampage”. A conversation that implies we’d get to see more of Justin Calen Chenn’s short-monstrosity-extravaganza. I mean seriously: you just gave me a slice of cake… A very good cake… You can’t just take it away now. In an ideal world I’d like to see this short turn into a series of at least three films. So I guess, we should start donating money to Justin in order to make this happen, right?

That’ll be all for now. I think this might be a new formula for my Shortcake column: a shorter, more compact, and hopefully starting now – a bit more frequent event. Honestly, too many quality shorts are slipping to my fingers and I can’t write about all of them if I’m doing it once a week. I’ll think about how I want to go about it, but I think short films will start making appearances in here more often.

Off to write that “Stoker” review. I’m out.