The Unwilling: Two B-Horror reviews

I don’t like horror movies, and I don’t like B-movies, but I guess I can’t go so far as to say “I wouldn’t watch them if you paid me,” because that’s effectively what happened here. While Shakespeare Behind Bars intrigued me, I dragged my feet a bit on these films, as neither really struck my fancy; having finally sat through both, I’m here to give each one a unfair shake (after all, my professor did suggest that I could at least make use of the films for my blog, although she had in mind the earlier, film-only version).

I’m also going to spoil both films, as I don’t think the plot is really the point. If for some reason you think you might go check these out, please avoid, good sir or madam.

Masque of the Red DeathThe Masque of the Red Death
Roger Corman, UK, 1964
Viewed on DVD, Aug. 4

Judging by, well, Wikipedia, this flick takes a to-the-point Edgar Allan Poe setpiece allegory about the indifferent rich getting their just deserts at the hands of a personified plague, and drags it out to feature-length with an aimless “seduction” plotline (with an even more marginal and inexplicable subplot about the arguably excessive revenge of a little person, appropriated from yet another Poe story).

The seduction aspect ultimately takes over the film, turning the source material into something of a morbus ex machina rather than the central thrust of the piece. Prince Prospero (a hammy yet engaging Vincent Price), you see, is an honest-to-the-devil Satanist, while his prey, Francesca (a fetching yet grating Jane Asher) is a sincere-if- naive Christian; predictable conflict ensues. The devil worship seems to have been introduced mostly because that’s the kind of thing a horror film’s villain should be into, and it’s hard to tell if Satanism is supposed to be a metaphor for the depravity of the nobility (doubtful, since none of Prospero’s guests are “believers”) or if words like “metaphor” just shouldn’t be used when talking about this film.

Despite the overblown subject matter, the content itself is only really shocking or excessive on one or two occasions, both of them involving Prospero’s scorned mistress, who pitifully tries to plunge herself deeper into Satanism in order to get Prospero to pay attention to her again (mercifully, we are spared the unfortunate spectacle of cat-fighting between her and the heroine, despite some early hints).

The experience is far from painful, but when it comes down to it, you’d only watch this if you were a connoisseur of Roger Corman shlock (don’t laugh; a lecturer at UCR teaches an entire course on Corman!).

mephistoThe Mephisto Waltz
Paul Wendkos, USA, 1971
Viewed on DVD, Aug. 20

And yet, Corman’s film starts to seem fun and exciting in comparison to this lackadaisical, modern-day (for the time) “suspense” film. It strikes me that suspense can go pretty far as an excuse to drag things out, as the premise of the film, namely possession, doesn’t  even come to the surface until about a half-hour has passed! What’s interesting is that, just as I was asking “is it over?” on a regular basis, they managed to throw in a few twists that, while not groundbreaking, were at least exponentially cleverer than the incessant build-up we’d seen for most of the movie. The truth is that the filmmakers were not able to create suspense, and although the devil seems to be involved, they didn’t have an actor like Price capable of selling it with a straight face, so it’s just a bit boring (they do soft-pedal the subject to some extent, but they still want to make a show of how twisted the main villain and his daughter are). Since they couldn’t present an interesting villain or maintain effective suspense, they might as well have focused the film around the set of reversals that occur near the end. As it is, they haven’t focused on much of anything! Let’s just say that if you are feeling bored or curious, you will feel more bored and less curious after watching this! I never would have finished it if I wasn’t being paid.

Well, maybe it just sucked because it wasn’t really meant to be a B-movie, but ended up as one anyway (both care under the “Midnite Movies” series of DVDs, two films per release). At least Corman knew what he was making, and deployed the campiness accordingly.

When all else fails, blame the government

One of the topics of discussion on Patt Morrison’s KPCC (public radio) show was an upcoming FCC hearing on cell phone billing. As usually happens, I heard snippets of the discussion, and the first of these snippets came from a caller, who demanded to know why he paid $30 per month for “unlimited data,” yet had to pay still more just to send text messages. Isn’t text data?

I sympathized. I refuse to use the Internet on my phone, no matter how many preset shortcut keys try to drive me towards it (I repogrammed as many shortcuts as possible, of course), and as such I usually don’t incur what’s referred to as “data” charges. My problem is that I pay extra for text messages while using only a fraction of the minutes I pay for, and of course I have the cheapest voice plan possible (for my provider).

The next snippet I heard, driving back to my house, was from soulless lobbyist hack John Walls, vice president of public affairs for CTIA, the International Association for Wireless Telecommunications Industry. His attitude about the hearings could be summed up as “bring it on,” as he seemed to think Congress didn’t have it in them to reign his people in. Undaunted, Morrison asked him if the telecom people would “welcome changes in the billing practices to make them clearer.” This was his response:

We think it’s, it’s appropriate that you itemize the billing… so they understand exactly who is charging them what. Right now, the average consumer is paying a little more than 15% of their monthly bill in taxes and fees, and those aren’t imposed, or charged, by the cell phone industry, they’re done by local governments, and state governments, and as well for universal service support, among other taxes and fees. So we think it’s important that people understand there’s a cost of their service, but there’s also all these other taxes and fees that are lumped on  there, and if they really wanna do something about that, they should talk to these passengers, they should let them know that enough is enough.

Oh my gosh! Fifteen percent?! Well folks, I’m going to make your day by giving you a peek into my cell phone bill, so we can try to see how on the nose this is.

Verizon Wireless Surcharges and Other Charges & Credits

Verizon Wireless Surcharges – Includes charges to recover or help defray costs of taxes and of governmental charges and fees imposed on us by the government. Other Charges and Credits – includes charges for products and services, and credits owing.
$2.09
Fed Universal Service Charge
1.03
Regulatory Charge
.07
Administrative Charge
.92
CA State P.U.C. Fee
.07
Taxes, Governmental Surcharges & Fees

Includes sales, excise and other taxes and governmental surcharges and fees that we are required by law to bill customers.
$1.03
CA State 911 Fee
.21
CA State High Cost Fund (B)
.10
CA Teleconnect Fund Surchg
.03
CA State High Cost Fund (A)
.05
Lifeline Surcharge – CA
.46
CA Advanced Svrcs Fund (CASF)
.10
CA Relay Srvc/Comm Device Fund
.08

Um, wow. Yeah, that $0.03 charge is really breaking my back. Something must be done! In fact, I did the calculations and my taxes and fees take up a whopping 5% of my bill. Hell, that’s lower than our sales tax!

I’ve had a theory for a long time, although I’m sure it’s not an original one, considering various forms of what this scumbag lobbyist called “itemizing.” It’s pretty simple, actually. If you are in the United Kingdom, for instance, and decide to buy a ₤2.50 sandwich, you will pay exactly ₤2.50 when you get to the register. If, however, you are in the United States, say Riverside, California, and decide to buy a $5 sandwich, you will end up having to dig for change to pay $5.43.

As you may well be aware, the VAT (Value Added Tax) that Brits pay puts almost any American jurisdiction’s tax rate to shame, yet it’s Americans who are induced by the price-displaying practices of their country, to curse the government for that “extra” $0.43.

Some people think this sounds like a conspiracy theory, but when you hear an actual lobbyist offer this as a solution to high cell phone bills, you have to realize that singling out the taxes (however meager) is in fact their strategy not only for distracting you from how much they’re overcharging you, but for incessantly driving people to the notion that no taxes are justified. I mean, who needs to pay for roads and junk, anyway? Society? Eh.

The fact that the dude had to lie about it (sure maybe somewhere you pay 15%, but Southern California is after all one of the higher-taxed jurisdictions, as far as I know, and certainly he was talking to us) just shows that he is doing his job the only way it can be done.

Indie Comic Review: Tomine’s Shortcomings

ShortcomingsShortcomings
Writer/Artist: Adrian Tomine
Serialized in Optic Nerve #9-11, 2004-2006
Published in hardcover 2007

At the beginning, I was impressed by how readable Tomine was able to make a book filled mostly with unlikable characters (okay, Alice Kim, the spunky Korean American lesbian, is a hoot despite being a womanizer and a cad). By the end, I was thinking, damn, that’s bleak. I guess I expected some kind of twist ending, but that would have been too easy.

Tomine, who is Japanese American himself, initially focuses on his relationship around all-around bitter dude Ben Tanaka and his long-suffering, more idealistic (or is she?) girlfriend, Miko Hayashi. They argue about a lot of things, in particular whether he really wouldn’t rather be a white girl (you can guess where this goes).

I’ve read that Tomine, who seems pretty focused on the hipster scene, never actually addressed race in his previous work, which is funny because I probably wouldn’t have picked up (even at the library, as I did here) his previous work if I saw it. I do think that what Tomine does with race is here is interesting, particularly because, by the end of the book, you get the feeling that he considers everybody to be wrong, even though I think he portrays almost every argument and viewpoint with an interesting kind of sympathy.

I think the greatest flaw of this “graphic novel” is that near the end, Tomine does have one of his characters spell out some things that were already, one imagines, pretty obvious. Of course, the effect is devestating, so maybe it works, but it does seem a little on-the-nose.

As I said, Tomine ultimately doesn’t provide us with any answers, which is definitely an unsettling experience, moreso than I would have expected, if only because the characters really deserve everything they get (no contrivances here). I think his work is worth taking a look at, as long as you’re not already feeling depressed!

Miyazaki’s greatest hits, poorly remixed

PonyoPonyo
(Gake no ue no Ponyo)
MIyazaki Hayao, Japan, 2008
Viewed on 35mm, Aug. 22

I am an insufferable purist who always prefers to see films in the original language (the last foreign film I watched in English was another Miyazaki film, Spirited Away, in its 2002 US theatrical release), but this time I decided that it was worth the trade-off to see it in the big screen.

After watching it, I learned that Noah Cyrus younger sister of Disney Channel star Miley “Hannah Montana” Cyrus (yes, it’s not enough to cast celebrities, now they’re casting the relatives of celebrities), provides the voice the little girl in the English version, but by this point, Cyrus’ inept attempts at voice acting (lots of shouting) almost ruined what was otherwise a pleasant experience). Unless you have a small child and as such have to watch it in English regardless, I’d wait for the DVD or the Blu-ray so that you can listen to what is undoubtedly a superior Japanese vocal track (I say this without having heard it, of course!).

As for the film itself, I feel that I can only explain it by comparing it to his earlier work. In the 1988 classic My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki told an amazingly powerful, minimalist story with a couple of very young children and a largely-mundane, domestic setting, with minimal magic. In the aforementioned Spirited Away, he plunged an equally young child into an elaborate, often-bizarre (at least if you’re not familiar with Japanese mythology) fantasy world.

Ponyo splits the difference between these two approaches. Like Totoro, the film minimizes the degree to which conflict drives the plot. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, there is no straightforward villain. Both of these facts are still somewhat remarkable for a feature film of any cultural tradition, but despite some refreshing characterizations (particularly Lisa, the main character’s mother), Miyazaki struggles to hold the viewer’s attention here, something that was rarely a problem for him in the past.

Certainly, it’s still worth a look on home video, as the visual inventiveness is considerable (and, as in Spirited Away, downright-unnerving at times). However, the core of the film is a bit lacking. Ponyo flirts with the ecological theme of Princess Mononoke and the family crisis theme of Totoro, but seems to shy away from pursuing any theme very closely, in notable contrast to those earlier films. Like any greatest hits album, this effort seems to lurch between different periods and ideas without really achieving the coherence or success of Miyazaki’s greatest moments in their original context.

Video Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder WomanWonder Woman’s always been a problem. Either because her origins are just a little too “weird,” or just because editors and writers keep botching her (probably some of both), she has the odd position of being officially placed in DC Comics’ “big three” while simultaneously being far less “iconic” than Batman or even the increasingly-unpopular Superman. A Wonder Woman feature was always going to be a challenge, and with Joss Whedon being fired from the project, it’s likely to be a challenge that Warner Bros. will fail at (either by making nothing or by making something like Halle Berry’s Catwoman).

Instead, if you’re interested in a decent Wonder Woman feature, you’ll have to satisfy yourself with this direct-to-video, 75 minute-long release. If you’re at all familiar with the celebrated Justice League TV series produced by Bruce Timm, you might be forgiven for thinking, based on the similar character design and the participation of Timm, that this video ties in with that series in some way, but no, this is part of the “DC Comics Original Animated Movies” line, which retells classic DC storylines from the last 20 years or so, this time with PG-13 rated violence.

Of course, you’ll be forgiven if “direct to video animation” makes you want to throw your computer out of the window, especially if you’ve seen even the billboards for the Disney efforts in this category (Cinderella II?!). Fear not; this would be a solid if unremarkable effort as television, and with a little upgrade in script and some voice acting, it could probably fly on the big screen (honestly, most super-hero action would look better in feature-quality, hand-drawn animation).

Wonder Woman’s origin was last revised (this happens to the best of them, including Superman) in a 1987 relaunch of her title, and this film more or less follows that plot (albeit in our present day). The story swiftly moves from the mythology-lite origin of the Amazons, to the birth of Diana, to her introduction to first to a man and then to “man’s world,” and finally to a whole lot of fightin’, culminating in an apocalyptic battle in the National Mall (most of the monuments we see are older, but I found it especially remarkable that one duel took place in front of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial wall!).

Voice-acting is a mixed bag, mosty due to the usual C-list celebrity stuntcasting that this kind of animation is now subject to; Firefly’s Nathan Fillion inevitably shines as male lead Steve Trevor, but Kerri Russell, while adequate, is obviously inferior to her Justice League counterpart, Susan Eisenberg (an actual voice actress, mind you). Some of the briefer parts are much worse, honestly.

Despite this, I quite enjoyed it, although I suspect you have to be at least favorably disposed to comic books to respond to it in the same way. As a project that only fanboys (and fangirls!) will probably be aware of, it makes less concessions to “normal” audiences than the theatrical adaptations tend to, but the characters are still engaging. Finally, the film looks beautiful on Blu-ray; the backgrounds are carefully drawn with vivid color, and the characters are simple but crisp. Action scenes are dynamic and “dramatic” scenes are convincing. You might well be surprised to see a non-theatrical release look this good (if you’ve got hi-def, that is).

In the end, I can’t deny that it falls short of the best Justice League episodes, but if you’re looking for more animated DC, it’s definitely worth a Netflix rental (and if you’re just curious about a well-known but under-promoted superheroine, it’s certainly much more self-contained and tightly focused than the Justice League saga). And it definitely beats Batman: Gotham Knight, the only other release I’ve seen in this “line.”

Hong Kong Film Review: Needing You

Needing YouNeeding You
(Goo naam gwa neui)
Johnnie To & Wa Ka Fai, Hong Kong, 2000
Viewed on DVD, Aug. 14

In the US, most film buffs without any particular ties to Asia tend to know only what gets distributed here (which means either a brief theatrical release or none at all, and then a slightly-more prominent video release). When comes to movies from Hong Kong (and, increasingly, the mainland of China), we get martial arts flicks.

I started at the same place, of course, but I was occasionally showed random VCDs (by friends in UC Davis, which led to me, after leaving for grad school, to start searching the Internet for recommendations in other genres. You can’t find most of these films in Blockbuster, but somehow many of them have made their way onto Netflix.

I first read about this film on this website and was intrigued. Like most guys I hate romantic comedies, but unlike most guys, I find myself wishing that Hollywood could make one or two good ones every now and then. After all, most action films are garbage (I have in mind two of this year’s toy tie-in films in particular), but there are always a few impressive ones (Star Trek this year, The Dark Knight and some others last year).

The co-director of this effort, Johnnie To, actually has some significant cred with film buffs and fanboys for his action films (I’ve seen two, but only one (LINK) impressed me), but somehow, To and Wa Ka Fai also managed to create an undeniably-formulaic, but genuinely charming movie with a good balance between sentiment and humor. It’s not so much groundbreaking in style as it is groundbreaking in its success in such a frequently-botched style. And finally, I do think they manage to keep it from getting too sappy, which is an important factor for the menfolk (and the more-cynical womenfolk).

Of course, the film hinges on engaging performances by Andy Lau, perhaps familiar to fanboys from Infernal Affairs or House of Flying Daggers, and Sammi Cheng, who is apparently quite big in Hong Kong, but largely unknown to me. Lau plays a bit of a sleaze while Cheng plays a bit of a wacko, which perhaps works if only because, at least in American film, we are too often subjected to the spectacle of an objectively worthless man successfully pursuing an almost-flawless woman; here, both are flawed yet appealing, and genuinely complement each other’s rough edges.

The workplace setting is also quite effective, as To and Wa do a great job of conveying the pernicious nature of gossip, while also using the setting as a natural way to bring the principle characters closer together (rather than resorting to too many outlandish coincidences. The complications than ensue do seem a bit extraneous at times (as always, the viewer wonders, “what took them so long?” but most set-pieces, such as an interesting twist on the old Cyrano plot, are by themselves surprisingly entertaining).

For those Hong Kong film buffs, there’s also a bit of pretty hillarious meta here, as Needing You gets a handful of jokes from Andy Lau’s depiction, in the 1990 classic A Moment of Romance, of a gangster in love with a naive rich girl  I watched this film due to a recommendation from the same website and was not at all impressed, but at least it was put to some good sue here.

That said, I don’t consider A Moment of Romance to be a perquisite for Needing You (especially because it sucked, and because you won’t miss that many jokes). Rather, if you’re looking for romance that doesn’t suck, pop this one onto your Netflix queue. Yes, you’ll need to read subtitles (if like me, you don’t speak Cantonese, and appreciate that the subtitles contained very few errors). You’ll live!

Docu-review: McNamara and The Fog of War

Fog of WarThe Fog of War
Errol Morris, USA, 2003
Viewed on DVD, Aug. 12

The first time I ever heard of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was when he was depicted in the movie Thirteen Days, which I quite enjoyed at the time. As portrayed by Robert Culp, McNamara  spent most of the film doing everything he could to thwart his generals’ borderline-insubordinate to plunge the country, and the world, into nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Turns out that was a lie, a lie that is repeated several times in this nevertheless fascinating autobiographical documentary. That may sound like a contradiction, but acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris, regardless of the sheer volume of cutting and visual accompaniment that he employs, largely allows McNamara to tell his own story unchallenged in one big “talking head” interview.

I know that McNamara is lying because Fred Kaplan of Slate.com (a often-wrong but usually interesting online news journal) did the public service, in this piece, of comparing McNamara’s statements in The Fog of War to his statements on a very different recording, namely the tapes released before the film came out in 2003. There, McNamara joins the majority of Kennedy’s advisors in calling for Cuba to be bombed, rather than (as Thirteen Days, if not The Fog of War explains) a accepting a “trade” in which missiles in Turkey pointed at the USSR were quietly withdrawn. As we know, Kennedy thankfully ignored those guys.

What’s troubling about this is that Morris actually makes use of these tapes in his film! When McNamara claims that he tried to dissuade Johnson from getting more deeply involved in Vietnam, Morris provides recordings that seem to confirm this (even here, Kaplan provides other quotes that show that the whole story is not being told here either). So why does Morris allow McNamara to lie about the Cuban Missile Crisis? It seems almost like he’s been seduced.

Despite all this, the film is actually a very valuable experience, as long as you read that Slate article either before or after watching it! (Even Kaplan concedes as much). As you may know, McNamara recently passed away, which was my impetus for giving it a watch. I was glad that I did, as this flawed (but perhaps well-meaning, in a way) of a figure defnitely deserves a full airing, and watching this helps you to some extent to understand what went wrong.

This might sound like a boring experience, since it’s basically just one big (heavily edited) interview with the guy, but Morris’ extensive use of archival footage (and even a bit of computer animation) livens up what would otherwise be a visually-deficient experience (although McNamara is more engaging than you might expect). The Fog of War also has easily the best music of any documentary I’ve seen, as Philip Glass has provided an amazingly-varied score, far above what you would expect.

Documentaries are not for everyone, of course and the subject matter might seem a bit narrow in terms of focus; however, McNamara’s life is such that he covers a very large swath of American military history, so really the scope is broader than that of most documentaries. And not all of his patter is self-serving; you might be surprised what he has to say about war crimes in the war against Japan!