Monday, June 27, 2011

FILM REVIEW: 13 Assassins, by Mark Donovan

Mark Donovan

 FILM REVIEW: "13 Assassins," by Mark Donovan

The second and possibly most memorable axiom in the Hagakure, the book of the Samurai, is this; “The way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult.” That is quite true. Death is easy, as is blind obedience.
 And, if director Takashi Miike had been reading the Hagakure, which he almost certainly did-- he probably also noticed this other axiom; “If you cut a face lengthwise, urinate on it, and trample on it with straw sandals, it is said the skin will come off.”

Miike is probably best known in America for two movies, Audition and Ichi the Killer, though he has made some 84 movies over 20 years, and for a while he was churning out films at the blistering pace of six per year. These days he seems to have limited himself to only directing two movies per year, which is still quite the accomplishment.

To say that his movies can be offbeat – or off-putting- would be putting it lightly. He is a director known for making weird genre mash-ups and films of almost staggering violence; his 2001 musical-comedy, Happiness of the Katakuris, featured dancing zombies and a claymation fistfight; Dead or Alive ended (spoiler) with the entire world exploding, and then went on to have two sequels. Given his reputation, the most surprising aspect of 13 Assassins is how straightforward and reserved the movie is.

The first hour is given over to political maneuvering and set-up. Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is a sadistic feudal lord who enjoys violent oppression of the general population, to put it mildly. When other politicians hear that he is to become the Shogun’s chief advisor, they hire Samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate Naritsugu. From there, Shinzaemon assembles 11 other Samurai, and one outsider, to take on Naritsugu and the hundreds of men that are protecting him.

While 13 Assassins is a direct remake of a 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo, it owes quite a debt to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. It certainly has the feel of Seven Samurai, with more postmodern violence. The titular 13 assassins also have echoes of Kurosawa’s film, most notably Yusuke Iseya as a forest bandit who evokes Toshiro Mifune’s character Kikuchiyo.

Action film fans may find the earlier scenes to be a little on the slow side; especially if they aren’t inured to Japanese history, or classic Samurai films. Miike keeps the carnage to a minimum in the early going, letting the film build like Bolero towards its chaotic, extremely violent, and immensely enjoyable climax, set in a small town that has been turned into a death trap/maze. The fight scenes are shot extremely well, given the number of actors on the screen, and it rarely gets confusing in the way that most current action films do. The audience knows who the characters are, where they are, and what they are doing for the majority of the fight, save for a scene filmed from the perspective of a dying Samurai. And it was all done with a minimal amount of CGI. It is like the swords and Samurai version of the hospital shootout at the end of Hard Boiled.

Still, no Samurai movie would be complete without some philosophizing about the code of the Samurai. What do servants owe to their rulers? And what does a servant do when it is clear that their ruler is wrong? Why do so many choose to follow someone that is clearly not worthy of their faithfulness? Part of the fun of 13 Assassins comes from knowing that the 13 assassins are just in their cause, and that, at least in Miike’s film, right makes might.

Film website:/

Written by Mark Donovan
Editor: Rod Webber

Monday, June 20, 2011

RUBBER: An Exercise in Reason, or a Lack Thereof

Mark Donovan

 FILM REVIEW: "Rubber," by Mark Donovan

Rubber begins with a “police officer” stepping out of a car trunk and giving a speech about “no reason.” The actor playing the “police officer” is Stephen Spinella, who is one of those 'That Guy' actors who you’ve certainly seen before, but just can’t place.
The scene is a set-up to a series of surreal setpieces that all came together, supposedly, for no reason. “In the Stephen Spielberg movie E.T., why is the alien brown?” So begins Quentin Dupieux’s Dadaist exercise in “No Reason.” As Stephen Spinella goes on to state in the introduction, “Life is filled with no reason.”

The idea of a rubber tire being the killer in a horror-comedy is fairly absurd, but, given that there have been many, many horror movies based on even more bizarre “killers”, the idea of a killer tire isn’t that absurd. There have been plenty of straight-up horror films made about inanimate objects as malevolent killers. Just watch Death Bed: the Bed That Eats, or Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes, or The Mangler and see what 40 years of cinematic history hath wrought. The difference is that those movies were not tongue-in-cheek parodies. Somebody actually thought that they would be scary. Rubber, on the other hand, was never meant to frighten. It is part of a new trend in which a writer/director tries to make a 'good bad movie.' The problem with making a 'good bad movie' is that it is impossible to replicate the so-bad-it-is-good cheesiness of 'good bad' films. I believe that was one of the lessons of Snakes on a Plane.

Rubber sounds like the perfect midnight movie fodder, but it just doesn’t work on that level. Quentin Dupieux has no shortage of clever ideas, but not all of them make for enjoyable midnight viewing. He wanted to simultaneously make an absurd midnight movie, and a commentary about absurd midnight movies, but the two ideas do not entirely suit each other. Starting the film by breaking the fourth wall is a bold move, but it drains the movie of any suspense, along with the fun shock that comes from watching something truly absurd. By telling the audience, and the fake audience of the movie that this is all just a game, it loses whatever edge it could have had. This was intended to be the thinking person’s killer tire movie, and for that it may end up driving most of its audience away.

That’s not to say that the entire film is a bust. Dupieux is a very clever craftsman, and he does stage some wonderfully odd setpieces, usually involving Stephen Spinella, or Wings Hauser, playing an old, wheelchair bound man in the audience. The cinematography, also by Dupieux, is very well done. This is a beautifully shot film. Dupieux has certainly put a great deal of thought and care into making this movie; the problem is that he may have over-thought the film. As a horror-comedy, it is neither very funny nor very scary, though the horror part of horror-comedy was probably never supposed to be scary. As an exercise in weird cinema, it is not weird enough.

Still, the movie isn’t a straight-out failure. There is enough contained within to reward those curious enough to want know what exactly the “killer tire movie” is about. Just understand, this isn’t a movie for every midnight movie fan. The pace is deliberately slower than most gonzo horror films, and there is some none-too-subtle commentary about the effects of watching too many inane horror films. Dupieux, in trying to make a modern commentary on gonzo horror-comedies, may have made the Werckmeister Harmonies of gonzo horror-comedies - only time will tell whether the audience is willing to embrace it.

Film website:/

Written by Mark Donovan

Thursday, June 9, 2011

FILM REVIEW: "Beneath Goes Above and Beyond," by Joseph James Bellamy

Joseph Bellamy
"Beneath Goes Above and Beyond," by Joseph James Bellamy

"Beneath Contempt" screens at Brooklyn Film Festival, June 10th, 6pm

Who deserves redemption? Can the pain of a lost loved one be balanced in blood?  Is there a limit to the human soul’s capacity to forgive? These are the questions raised in Beneath Contempt.
Writer/Director Benjamin Brewer’s calmly powerful account of loss, atonement, and family.

The story begins with the events leading up to an automobile crash that proves fatal for all but one of the car’s occupants, Sean Beckett, the driver (an impressively solid and tender showing by Collin Janson.) Beckett is judged at fault for the accident, and is sentenced to a prison term. From here, the story shifts forward to just before Beckett is released and we are re-introduced to the family of one of the victims.

Sarah Newhouse is the picture of a fractured psyche as Juna Barnes, the mother of the deceased. Her expression of the bottomless loss in a child’s death is brilliantly subtle. She runs the gamut between numbly getting through her life and a manic outcry to other survivors for some sense of justice. A justice that cannot come in the form she hopes. Or can it?

In Matthew, the brother of the deceased, (Mike Bash deftly conveying cold vengeance and the warmth of familial love) we encounter an injured soul, incapable of forgetting or forgiving. We see that he has been engaging in an ongoing campaign to prevent Beckett’s release. Simultaneously, Matthew devotes himself to protecting his younger sister from the pain that permeates their family. Where his mother is trying to come to grips with the unfortunate facts of their situation, Matthew believes the law has failed his family, in spite of his commitment to the process. His solution to this frustration drives the plot to a chillingly brutal, if very human, conclusion.

Grounding the family with both their need to preserve her innocence and her own precocious awareness of the tragedy is youngest child, daughter Jamie (newcomer Abby Austin). It is Jamie’s youthful ability to believe in better tomorrows that adds a bittersweet beauty to her interactions with what remains of her family.

From the moment of his release, it is clear that the locals have not forgotten Beckett’s transgression and that he is decidedly unwelcome in his own home town. The feeling is even echoed, if not endorsed, by his mother, Nora (a warmly heart-breaking performance by Melanie May, full of earnest fear and worry,) and Uncle Rob (portrayed with a calm stoicism by Eric R. Eastman). Under a shade of painful regret, lit only by the faint hope that one day his crime will be forgotten, Beckett settles in and attempts to reclaim his life.

The remainder of the film is an impressively elegant and subtle dance of mounting tensions. The pressure is felt on all sides: in Beckett’s mind, within the Beckett and Barns’ families, and between them. The disturbing sense of reflection under pressure envelopes the audience, as the story builds to its dark crescendo. All of this is rendered with a chillingly creepy use of shadow, ambient lighting, and fittingly, the harsh glare of headlights. The overall visual effect is the sense that you are in someone else’s dream of their darkest hour, everything bearing a wholly normal, yet subjectively alien appearance. Brewer succeeds in stimulating, and emotionally capturing the audience, without ever sacrificing or over-selling the measured clarity of his vision.

By the end of the experience (and it is quite an experience…) none of the above questions are answered. The good guy doesn’t get the girl, there is no clear lesson learned. All we learn about loss, redemption, vengeance, and forgiveness is that the capacity for each of these, and a million other states of mind, is within each of us. The values and limits of these things are left to us to define, as we make our own way through life.

In summary, Beneath Contempt is a powerful drama that dissects the family dynamic to strike directly at the heart of the individual. It is a quietly dignified tour de force that brings the audience face to face with the truths we would rather leave unexplored within ourselves. I recommend it for anyone interested in traversing the frontiers and testing the boundaries of humanity in the face of mortality.

Directed by Benjamin Brewer
Film Website :   

Review written by Joseph James Bellamy
Editor: Rod Webber
Published by Reel Zine
© Reel Zine 2011

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

FILM REVIEW: Ashes by Mark Donovan

Mark Donovan

 FILM REVIEW: "Ashes," by Mark Donovan

Ajay Naidu has acted in 64 different film and television roles- though he is primarily known for his role as Samir in Office Space- and it is clear that his time in front of the camera has also taught him a good deal about working behind the camera.
In Ashes, Naidu plays a small time drug dealer in New York, nicknamed Ashes, who sells weed, and only weed, in order to support him and his mentally challenged brother (Faran Tahir, Iron Man). His luck starts to turn around when he associates himself with a group of small time drug dealers from India, lead by a man called Pinky (Firdous Bamji). As is the way in films like this, things then start to fall apart.
While the drug deal portion of film takes up a good bit of the run time, it’s the story of the two brothers that seems to be the focus of the film. As Ashes, Naidu plays a man struggling with the responsibility of looking after his older brother and trying to fulfill his own dreams of wealth. Meanwhile, the older, more troubled brother, Kartik, is dealing with Manic Depressive Schizophrenia, and the knowledge that he is no longer in charge of his own brain. As Kartik, Tahir manages to play a deeply troubled man without overplaying his cards. Sometimes all it takes is a slight gleam in his eye, or a minor change in his expression. The bit players are also quite good, from Piper Perabo as Kartik’s love interest, who is also dealing with her own mental illness, to Peter Macon, who gives a very genuine and natural performance as Ashes’ friend and fellow drug dealer.
The idea of a low level drug dealer who deals only weed may lack verisimilitude, but Naidu, as director, makes up for it with subtle realism; from the apartments that the characters live in, to the little details, like when Naidu and Macon share some Nutella straight out of the jar, with their fingers, for lack of spoons or bread. There is a gritty realism to the way these characters live.

Though the movie was made on a shoestring budget, with a cast comprised mostly of his friends, Naidu manages to make every penny count. The cinematography incorporates a great deal of natural light, yet every scene looks professional, if not picturesque. And while the direction may lack flash, it is obvious that Naidu has picked up a few tricks from watching Darren Aronofsky. Had I not known this was his first time directing, I would not have known this was his first time directing.

Ashes is, artistically, a success, overall, but there are a few missteps along the way. Ashes is a primarily male-centric film, leaving the women solely underused. While Piper Perabo does a fine job as a mentally unstable love-interest, she spends most of the film unseen and unheard, mentioned only by the older brother. Reena Shah fares worse as Ashes’ love interest. Her character is rarely seen, and, in the end, we know so little about her that she just seems like an afterthought. Heather Burns is the most egregious, however. While her character is supposed to be mysterious, she is given so little to say or do that the audience doesn’t really care who she is or what she is trying to do. With a few more scenes thrown her way, Burns character could have provided the film with a good deal more mystery or tension.

These problems are minor when considering how well the movie has been constructed, overall. Hopefully Naidu will be given more chances to direct in the future. If this film is any indication, he should have a bright future ahead of him.

Film website:

Written by Mark Donovan
Editor: Rod Webber