Tuesday, March 21, 2006


The first striking thing about The President’s Last Bang is how successfully it combines genres which should be completely at odds with one another. The political bio-pic does not in my mind seem to be a natural fit with black-satire or a highly stylized violent action film (to say that it feels like gangster film is not a stretch, and probably intentional). The near-slapstick comedy elements would not at first thought, mesh with the ensemble drama structure. And, a sizable portion of the film is scored to a sweet Parisian-sounding upbeat tempo (think Amelie or Belleville Rendez-Vous)!

Im Sang-Soo directs the film with such bold and brazen confidence that his success here feels like a forgone conclusion from the first planning meeting (and re-inventing one of the most controversial events of 20th century South Korea as edgy entertainment is no small order). It seems one of the key strengths of the current heat of South Korean cinema is the fact that directors such as Im Sang-Soo, Jeong Jun-hwan (Save the Green Planet) and Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) are stirring the pot simply by mixing ingredients, however unintuitive, so well.

First, take the perfectly simple structure of introducing the rather large ensemble of players, then carrying out the plan, then watching the fallout. But with each gamepiece-style advance of the plot, there are more than double the amount of character building moments integrated into the narrative. Second, the confidence behind the camera shows with each set up perfectly exploiting the grammer of cinema: The plotting moments are Soderbergh-style (but now quite ubiquitous) shakey-handheld camera. Two Enka-performances filmed with extended tracking shots capture the complicated mood of the scene perfectly. The initial violence of the coup is suitably chaotic (like the beginning of the highly underrated Narc); the silence afterwards has the camera stalk the house like a ghost. And the closing quarter of the film is filmed in medium and long shots (often with the camera positioned from above) to indicate the powerlessness of key players to contain what they have unleashed (soon thereafter, swallowed by entropy).

On October 26 1979 South Korean President Park Chung-hee was brutally overturned by a political coup from his own Ministry of the Interior (KCIA to be more exact). At the risk of sounding like a dunce (and to call my Korean history passable would be quite a charity), the man was like Michael Eisner who brought Disney out of the ashes of a difficult time through a controversial series of actions. But after peaking, began the inevitable decline of the Mouse House simply by being in power too long, defending his position, surrounding himself with yes-men, and not understanding how he was well past his sell-before date. In short, he had become a dictator. Before continuing an analogy which would likely get me in trouble, the key difference being that there were a lot more lives affected by Park Chung-hee than Michael Eisner. The President’s Last Bang chronicles the players, the night of the coup, and the fallout with intelligence, grace, and unpredictability. At times, it felt a bit like this was Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers done so right (where Stone went so wrong). Im Sang-Soo allows us to indulge in the decadence of the regime, going so far to open the film with bare breasts and a read-aloud smutty novel, so we are disgusted by it. He lets us tag along with the violence so we can try unsuccessfully to get some visceral joy, but instead see the horrific idiocy of it all. And most of all, he allows the conviction of the characters, even (perhaps especially) when they are completely off-base, to shine though the glossly cinematography. And this is all done along with the bitingly black humour typically seen in war satires such as Dr. Strangelove, M*A*S*H, Catch-22 or the more recent Buffalo Soldiers. Kim Jae-kyu's coup is done seemingly by the seat of his pants; a violently sudden improve, and revolution comes in between his strained bowel movements and extreme bad breath. How is that for flattery of democracy? And yet South Korea did and has continued its upward climb as a country afterwards (and as a cinema!).

Baek Yoon-Shik, who gets the most screen time as Kim Jae-kyu is an absolute marvel (and the role has a lot of meat to chew on). The entire ensemble from the President (a subtle pitch-perfect Song Jae-Ho) to the politicos to the grunts (hilariously unarmed when it matters most it seems), the entertainment and the household staff, there is not a weak performance. Further noteworthy is the doorman of the Blue House who presides over the massacre and clean-up like a silent deity.

Perhaps at its most ironic, The President’s Last Bang shows a political coup for democracy and never once gives face to ‘The People.’ Here the masses seem as much or more to be a construct than the creaky and corrupt system of government. Arguably, the one character would could stand-in for ‘The People’ gets the harshest and most angry end of the stick in the film’s penultimate remarks.

Come out Tuesday night for one of the best pieces of cinema of 2005, and that includes not just South Korea, a countries cinema I'm rather fond of at the moment, but anywhere around the world. Drinks at 8pm, Showtime at 8:30pm.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


How exactly did Bill Murray go from playing sarcastic cocky motormouths (Stripes , Ghost Busters, Scrooged) to playing tortured unfulfilled near-ghosts? (Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers , The Royal Tenenbaums). The easy mark would be to pinpoint when he started working with talented young directors, the first being Wes Anderson with Rushmore. It revived his career which was going nowhere and took him right out of the broad comedy set into a more art-film world. But Murray was in the art film world before that. In Tim Burton's black & white Ed Wood biopic he plays one of Wood's eccentric entourage and is looking to have a sex change operation. If you go back a little further, it would tempting to say Groundhog Day, which was still a broad comedy, but it had a refreshing existential bent. I'm sure someone would even mention the fizzled comedy/drama he made with Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman, Mad Dog and Glory.

All Wrong! You would have to go back to 1990 for the overlooked comedy gem Quick Change. Part heist film, part farcical screwball comedy, the film first feels like a blockbuster-type film. There is a large bank heist with loads of police officers and such. But the movie quickly changes (i know, i know, pun intended) into a highly quirky character piece. Actually, it is more of a series of surreal and increasingly unlikely sketchs (but trust me, it works and is damn funny). The film features Murray at his sarcastic best, with the world against him. Well, the world being New York City. The film has a real hate-on for the town so nice they named it twice.

Opening with a scenic shot of Central Park, the camera pans down to reveal that the scene is just a poster on an overcrowded subway of sleepy communters (and it does this to the tune of Nat King Cole's L-O-V-E). There is Bill Murray (appropriately named Grimm), in full clown regalia with a handful of balloons. He tries to get off the train, but the hordes of people getting on an off toss him about like a leaf in a storm. When he does manage to disembark the train, he heads for the nearest bank and pulls off a dynamo heist of about one million dollars. All he has to do is get to the airport with his two accomplices (a radiant Geena Davis, and a typically bumbling Randy Quaid). But robbing a bank is easy, finding the airport in spite of ignorant construction workers, organized crime, cabbies who do not speak American, militant bus-drivers and determined police chiefs is hard. At one point, when they finally even spot an airplane, the question "Is that our plane?" is answered in perfect deadpan: "No if that was our plane, it would be crashing."

I don't know why, but for a film which gets quite silly at times, I found it interesting, no I dare say refreshing, that the film would have such a number of F-bombs dropped (and other foul things said). If this movie were made today, I doubt there would be so many cuss words (and the film would be PG, not R). But these characters have a million dollars and are frustrated to hell by the city. Swearing is mandatory and fun for the whole family!

Quick Change is also a fun exercise in spot-the-character-actor-who-has-gotten-a-lot-more-famous: Phil Hartman, Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, and Kurtwood Smith all have bit parts that can't help but make you smile.

In the end, Quick Change earns a few more points than it deserves because it was completely buried when it came out in 1990. It did (I believe) start Bill Murray down the road to more interesting films. There is a (classic) line from the film really says it all. The bank security guard (after having a gun pulled on him by a clown) asks, "Just what type of clown are you?" Murray's response, "The crying on the inside kind I guess." Sound familiar?

Come out Tuesday Night at 8:00 for drinks and munchies. Trailers & showtime at 8:30 (It's a breezy one too, running at a brisk 86 minutes)

Saturday, March 04, 2006


[This is Part 1 of a pair of trashy girl-sci-fi-action pictures which have a qutie a bit in common, including the slightly unfair drubbing they are getting in the mainstream press who I believe collectively fail to see what the aim of the picture, get a bit too hung up on plot, narrative continuity and ultimately miss the point of making and viewing these kinds of movies. See also AEON FLUX below this review.]

Think back if you will to 1993. Perhaps, if you were lucky enough, you managed to catch a low-budget action picture from maverick director Robert Rodriguez. El Mariachi was not particularly original story-wise, but it was maverick, spunky and a heck of a lot of fun. Few people actually caught it in the theatre, but upon the VHS release it really began to generate word of mouth. Fast-forward to 1995 and Desperado. A remake, a sequel, and a continuation of directional devlopement, it featured an vastly increased budget and that money was transformed into a love of visual excess. Guerrilla spunkiness gave way to giddy confidence as many of the conventions of North American action films were trammelled in to something new: Substance is casually (but completely) discarded and style trumps all.

Now take the case of Kurt Wimmer. His buried (by Miramax ‘natch) riff on Huxley, Bradbury and Orwellian themes took on a life of its own on DVD, with the benefit of the internet to spread word-of-mouth. Equilibrium got by on some good performances (Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Sean Bean) and the cinematic debut of “Gun-Kata,” (a form-based martial arts featuring handguns). The fact that it fell into most peoples laps with little fanfare other than a trailer which made the film look like a low budget Matix clone (which if you want to be picky, it isn’t), likely cut the film some slack. Much like Rodriguez, with his follow up film, Wimmer aims to push style over substance much, much further with his larger budgeted follow-up effort. Excess oozes out of every carefully composed and digitally altered frame of Ultraviolet. It is likely to rub about 90% of its audience the wrong way.

Featuring a composite ‘plot’ which blends elements of many comic book, video-game and sci-fi features of the past decade (For the record, The Matrix, Blade, Resident Evil, Underworld, X-Men and Aeon Flux – in fact, this film is a heck of a lot more Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux than Karyn Kusama’s – Think Chung’s animated short “War” and you are about perfectly on target). The futures new form of perpetual war has moved far past the war on terror to a war on disease. Background characters could not help but remind me of laughably (to local Torontonians) fear-mongering CNN images featuring mask-wearing Chinese and Canadian citizens during the 2003 SARS crisis. The “big disease” has turned a small portion of the population into vampires; in the movies vernacular, hemophages. Violet (Milla Jovovich at her most handsome and most mechanical) is a hemophage resistance fighter determined to take down the current dictator/biochemist/priest who rules the society with and latex-gloved iron fist and a disinfectant wipe (hilariously, the Pentagon building in the future is shaped like the Biohazard symbol). The incident at hand involves a bio-engineered boy (Birth’s creep child Cameron Bright, playing it both angelic and vacant) designed as a weapon to biologically exterminate the hemophages like some sort of designer antibody.

The opening credits are done with 1970s comic book covers, in hopes to prepare you that realism just is not the aim. Instead, it is graphic arts. Plot, narrative continuity and acting are so far beside-the-point here that if you are hung up on such 'trivial' details you will be clawing your eyeballs out about 10 minutes into the film. Ultraviolet is a patch-quilt made of retro-70s and modern CGI set pieces, many of which involve hundreds of faceless storm troopers coming at Violet en masse to be struck down with such exacting geometric symmetry that you know instinctively where the joie de vivre was in the making of the film. A word of warning: There is almost no spatial continuity from one set piece to the next, making this feel as much like a comic book as a level based video-game. Featuring a discotheque visual palette recalling George Lucas’ THX1138 and original Star Wars, Tron, Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon and Kazuaki Kiriya’s Casshern (Hell, throw in Kill Bill Vol.1 for good measure), the movie is going to live or die for a lot of viewers on these two aspects: Action forms and production design (reminiscent of The Duelist, a recent unconventional Korean film also in love with form at the expense of traditional narrative).

The body count is as high as any HK John Woo squib-fest and half the characters are vampires, but there is really no blood to interfere with the glossy set design Another visual oddity, perhaps in keeping with the comic book action/sci-fi vibe Wimmer is striving for, is a flattened look of facial features. With the exception of a bearded William Fichtner (serving here as Violet’s Q), everyone’s face has been digitally airbrushed to interesting effect. It is interesting, even if it is not entirely consistent over the course of the film.

Many who have been looking forward to Ultraviolet are coming for the Gun-kata, and happily, it has been elevated to the next level here in three standout sequences. Although Wimmer may have run out of ideas with the martial art about half way though the film. This is most obvious by his choosing to set up almost identically a certain iconic Lobby sequence, and charmingly paying it off with only sound effects behind a closed door. It is a hilariously catty visual joke, perhaps in response to the comparisons of Equilibrium to the Matrix.

A quick word about the dialogue: Ultraviolet opens with a clunky extended dialogue sequence, which is only moderately successful at setting up the mythology of the world. Every spoken phrase is either a cheese ball one-liner, a melodramatic breathy proclamation, or needless exposition. While again, dialogue is not the aim of the film, it somehow manages to earn the films only big laugh (true to recent sci-fi trash-film it takes itself deadly serious most of the time) delivered seconds before the final showdown.

As much a digital back-lot production as the recent slew of films (from Sky Captain to MirrorMask), perhaps Ultraviolet should be compared Sin City, both Kurt Wimmer and Robert Rodriguez aim to meld the popcorn film into other forms of media.

There is a place for this type of film. A heck of a lot of critics are going to crying yet again to the death of storytelling. Like Equilibrium, it is trash. But for some of us, trash is not an insult, but rather a stylistic form. I am happy to watch these experiments be taken to the next level.

Aeon Flux

[This is a double post of Trashy Sci-Fi actioners which not only have similar poster art, are films which have similar strengths and weaknesses. Also, I'm an unabashed fan of Peter Chung's original MTV incarnation of AEON FLUX, and my review (which was posted to Twitchfilm.net a during the original AEON FLUX run in December 2005) inevitably keeps coming back to the TV show, and (for better or worse) makes no attempt to assess the film as a stand-alone vehicle, there may be a mild *SPOILER* or two in there as well.]

“It looks like nature found a way” -- A line of dialogue, which is one of perhaps two unintentional Spielberg references in AEON FLUX, puts the film nicely in the sphere of the biological science fiction. One thing nicely ported over from the anarchic animated TV series is Peter Chung’s sense of biotech gone wild.

Scissor like flesh seeking blades of grass and some kind of technological fruit-on-the-vine capable of firing poison loaded darts at both a high rate and velocity offer both a visual thrill and botanical challenge for Aeon and her friend who was forward thinking to have her feet surgically replaced with hands for an acrobatic edge. Aeon and fellow Monican rebels do not need to meet in a clandestine location, but rather take a pill and meet their leader in some sort of pharmacological state of being. Phones are implanted directly into the ear, video-email can be sent by spores in a glass of water.

In the 10 episode TV series, there was never an attempt at narrative continuity either within a show or across the series. Each episode more or less had Aeon attempting to thwart one scheme or another of Bregnan Scientist-Ruler Trevor Goodchild, but at the same time dealing with her lust for him. The film does have the feel of an extended episode except that the story is structured in a far more straightforward manner, somewhat amplified in scale suitable for a feature. Elaborate, vaguely asian architecture and costume design give you a very interesting world to look at. It was a smart move to set the film away from the Orwellian model of dark and dreary distopia, even if the visual palette occasionally treads into Sci-Fi Channel TV-Movie territory.

Bregna, the last civilized outpost, is a police state walled in from the dangers of the rest of the world (a flirting comment on US domestic policy scaled another 400 years out?). But it is not the war on terror, rather the poison terrarium that is the rest of the planet. It seems 400 years prior, the rest of the planets population succumbed to a vague industrial disease (shades of Todd Haynes’ Safe) that was later cured by a distant ancestor of the current Chairman. Despite seemingly unlimited Biotechnology, fear of disease prevents citizens from venturing out into the wild greenery beyond Bregna’s walls. The cities population is having strange dreams and people are disappearing. A domestic terrorist movement, known as the Monicans (of which Aeon is a key member) are a threat to shall we say, national security. Aeon is given fist a mission to destroy the massive surveillance system used on the population. Then she is given orders to assassinate Chairman Goodchild.

The kill/kiss dynamic between Aeon and Trevor from the show is muted, insofar as Marton Csokas’ Goodchild is neither menacing nor diabolical, merely aloof. Despite being compared to Chairman Mao via propaganda billboards scattered around the city-scape of Bregna and a Worholian collage in his secret laboratory, there is an inexplicit lack of villainy (and dare we say, honest to goodness sympathy) in Trevor. Perhaps this is a result of dividing his character from the TV series into two. Co-Chair of Bregna is Trevor’s treacherous brother Oren (played by Johnny Lee ‘Sickboy’ Miller, sans Sean Connery accent). Oren is evil and not really that interesting. Why the split into two? Both suffer for it.

Where Aeon Flux really suffers is in the loss of whimsical levels of carnage omni-present in the cartoon, especially the wordless Liquid Television shorts. Oh, there is nothing wrong with Charlize Theron’s appearance, even if it is a fair bit different than the familiar dominatrix outfit. What is missing is he joy of just being Aeon Flux and good at what she does: The haughty superiority of being ‘above it all’ until one thing or another (typically her lust for Trevor) brings her back down to the filth and imperfection of humanity. Screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have given a reason for her isolated toughness, a sister which from the outset you know is doomed, but you’d think director Karyn Kusama would have given said sister more than 2 minutes screen time. That is one sign of directorial clumsiness and editing the fight sequences like Mark Steven Johnson’s inept Daredevil does the film no favours. With no shortage of imported Asian stunt choreographers, from Donnie Yen to Siu-Tung Ching to Woo-ping Yuen, doing work in a variety of Hollywood films, Aeon deserved better.
Aeon’s effortlessness with her acrobatics is just not on display. The TV show made her over-confident and playfully punished that attitude by killing her as often as letting her live, here she is much more hesitant and uncertain, but nearly always successful. I just prefer the former.

Ultimately though, Aeon Flux aims to move past the comic-book action film which is the basis of the films advertisement and into sci-fi concepts (shades of the Matrix, which no doubt was in large part inspired by the original Aeon Flux series). It is more successful here, although to further elaborate would be heading full on into spoiler territory. The film is not the unmitigated disaster that the lack of press-screenings (and subsequent press reaction because of those lack of screenings) implies. I’d bet a few dollars that if the film was not an expensive affair featuring two Oscar winning actress or it was simply buried like say Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners or Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium it would achieve ‘overlooked’ status in a few years. Instead it AEON is bound to be compared to Catwoman, which is undeserved. The overall package is sporadically entertaining if not truly outstanding. And yes, it provided fans of the original show with a top shelf DVD release. Thank-you Paramount.

Post Script:

For completeness sake, what was the other Spielberg reference? This may be stretching, but Aeon Flux more than once stretches the level of brutality of the PG-13 rating. Where Temple of Doom (which stretched the PG to the breaking point and all-but created the PG-13 rating) had villian Mola Ram reach his hand physically into a body to remove a still beating heart, Ms Flux plunges a digit or two into the wounds Trevor Goodchild in an attempt to remove a bullet or two, and the scene carries a nice sexual undertone which is certainly in keeping with the spirit of Aeon Flux. The film version needed more of this.