Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Centurion: Neil Marshall proves he's Jackson Pollock with blood splatter

I sadly missed the Toronto After Dark Film Fest this year and a major lament concerning that was not seeing Centurion, Neil Marshall's latest flick. Compounding this, the movie skipped the theaters and went straight to DVD, wherein I loudly complained to anyone who would (or would not) listen. Then I saw Doomsday. After that can you really blame distributors for not having faith?

Centurion is set in the second century A.D. as the Romans are expanding their empire into a last bastion of resistance, the land of the Picts. Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) survives an ambush by the Picts and reunites with a legion led by General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West). They swear revenge, get ambushed again and the general is taken prisoner. In case you aren't up on your Roman code that means the survivors have to go get him. This doesn't pan out so well, but does set the vicious Pict tracker Etain (Olga Kurlenko) on their trail. What remains of the legion then begins a chase-and-pursue quest to get home.

Besides the unfortunate voice over, Fassbender delivers a great performance. It's as if the man was made to play abused characters (or maybe my thought association with him and Hunger is still too strong) but from the opening sequence of him running shirtless through the snow the trials and tribulations don't let up. Dominic West is (fittingly) a mix of 300 gladiator and The Wire hard-nosed-but-one-of-the-boys authority figure. But it is Olga Kurlenko who steals the show. Though I cringed at first when we find our one female lead is a mute (her tongue was cut out by Romans), Kurlenko does a lot with Etain. And it has less to do with her Bond Girl beauty, which is masked under amazing costume design, but more to do with (at risk of sound like Tyra Banks) the use of her face and eyes to emote nothing short of pure hatred for the colonizing Romans.

There's no denying that Marshall is a Jackson Pollock with blood spray and Centurion delivers some great works of splatter. The fight scenes are reminiscent of Gladiator with the same blue steeped tone, but the plot is less Ridley Scott than it is The Odyssey - stretching, epic and riddled with secondary characters. While the subject matter has no horror it's still very much a Marshall film. There are clear elements of Dog Soldiers (the return to an almost all male military cast; Etain being cast as a she-wolf of sorts) and also the aforementioned Doomsday. But don't let the latter deter you from renting this. Marshall builds off the interesting experimentation with time period drama that we see in Doomsday, rather than Bentley vs punk street gang car chase.

Maybe it's because Centurion streeted around Remembrance Day, but I found many lines in the film resonated with current wars and political dramas. When Quintus remarks: "This a new kind of war, without armour, without end" it is hard for thoughts not to leap to current conflicts in the Middle East. The guerrilla enemy, Quintus' questioning of who and what he is fighting for and (spoiler) his ultimate lack of support from his country only add to this.

But politics aside, Centurion is a great way to cleanse your palette of Doomsday. Let's just hope the next dish Marshall serves is equally as appetizing.

Update: Would like to thank Centurion and Doomsday star Axelle Carolyn for the blog love, check her out on Twitter.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sharktopus: From sequins to sharks

I was suppose to be seeing Burlesque right now but much to my, and Mr. W-Will's chagrin, advance screening passes were over distributed. So I dragged myself home in the rain while others basked in the sequin glory of Cher and Volchok Cam Gigandet. But not being one to wallow in self-pity I'll trade sequins for sharks and talk about a screening I attended last week: Sharktopus.

Bless Rue Morgue's Cinemacabre for screening this gem of stinker. Truly, there is no other way to see bad CGI tentacles impaling perfectly manicured beach babes than on the big screen. With about as much attention to continuity as there is to logic and science Sharktopus follows Nathan Sands (Eric Roberts), his daughter Nicole (Sara Malakul Lane) and playboy Andy Flynn (Kerem Bursin) as they try to re-capture/kill the botched science experiment that is Sharktopus. In case your grasp of compound words is lacking, that is a creature which is half shark, half octopus and all rage - and you thought a human centipede was shocking (you really thought I'd hyperlink human centipede, didn't you?).

A quintessential B-movie, Sharktopus is so bad it's a joyful ride through why movies are so wonderful. Without irony or disparaging film school angst Sharktopus declares itself ridiculous from the get go, and embraces it. Because of this, aided by Roger Corman's magical movie touch, Sharktopus manages to clunk along from one choppy scene to another, mangling dialogue, the art of acting and general common sense in the spirit of movie making. While watching Sharktopus you can almost hear the endless rejections it must have received. But like our protagonist Sharktopus, the film fought on, somehow managing to make it from shooting, to the can to the screen.

But maybe I'm reading into it too much. Take Sharktopus for what it is and you'll enjoy it. There's no sequins, but there's one heck of theme song.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Breast Fest Film Fest 2010: Opening Night "Busting Out"

Pre-screening festival chats are always fun. Like minded people (or at least just fellow film lovers) all gathered together can make for great conversation. Breast Fest is no exception, except the stories tend to be more personal - almost everyone I talked to had a story of how they, a family member or friend has been touched by breast cancer. But, like the opening night film Busting Out, this didn't make for a depressing Friday evening.

Busting Out was a perfect choice to open the festival, setting the tone for the next few days of films. Though centred around one woman's story (director Francine Strickwerda) Busting Out explores our society's view of breasts. Glands, sexual objects, markers of femininity, cancerous curses, fetishized and coveted objects, our view of boobs is all over the place. Busting Out ambitiously tackles all these topics. Talking with breast feeding advocacy groups, cancer survivors and pro-flashing shock jocks alike, Strickwerda's search stems from figuring out what her breasts mean to her since her mother's death from breast cancer.

Strickwerda's direct engagement with the subject matter and interviewees captures how much people want to speak about the mythology of breasts. But despite this, as Strickwerda said in a Q&A following the screening, finding a distributor for the film was nearly impossible. While we love breasts their mainstream representations don't involve mastectomies, mother's feeding their babies or often anything other than a Nip/Tuck perfection. While Busting Out risks losing us in the myriad of boobie issues Strickwerda's genuine enthusiasm, and sometime skepticism, creates a personal piece from an abstract topic which keeps her audience engaged. It's a tad overscored, especially when the raw emotion of the interviewees is moving enough, but overall a fresh look at breasts.

If there's one thing to take away from Busting Out it's that breasts, and the politics, desires and diseases that surround them, aren't just a woman's issue. If you're a mammal be sure to check out Breast Fest this year, because breasts effect us all.

Breast Fest Film Fest runs Nov. 19-20 at the ROM in Toronto. Tickets here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Unstoppable: Tony Scott takes on the Lumiere Brothers

Most of life is pretty complicated. Unstoppable, however, is not. I imagine the studio pitch went something like this:

Director Tony Scott: Ok, so there’s this train.
20th Century Fox: Ok.
Scott: It can’t be stopped.
20th: And?
Scott: That’s it.

Add in Denzel Washington, Scott’s jolting camera work and you have 100 minutes of the most uncomplicated cinema you will ever see. Like the train (spoiler) Unstoppable’s plot is never derailed, hurtling along the most straightforward route from beginning to end. So how, I’m sure you are wondering, does a train exactly run away? As stationmaster Connie (Rosario Dawson) puts it, though a mix of “bad luck and human error.” When a lumbering train yard hand (kudos to casting on choosing Ethan Suplee) slips up, train number 777 escapes the yard, hurtling down the main track of Southern Pennsylvania. As if its sheer tonnage isn’t terrifying enough, 777 is also carrying hazardous material, turning it into Thomas the Tank Engine on meth. There are various attempts to stop it, which fail, leaving the fate of train in the hands of Frank (Denzel Washington) and Will (Chris Pine).

While the film is inspired by true events, the comparison between the film’s telling and real life is so delightfully different you understand why Scott had to create newsreel footage instead of using actual coverage. The real runaway train never reached more than 47 miles an hour, hardly the rocket that Denzel tries to rein in. But Scott is invested in those clips, using them frequently, as if hoping to create some semblance of reality to counterbalance the sheer absurdity of what you are watching.

But picking apart the plot of Unstoppable is about as fair as Tolstoy pitting Anna Karenina against that train: the plot is just as squashable as she is. That being said, there are attempts at character development. We learn that that rookie conductor Will is lined up to take Frank’s job, forcing the latter into early retirement. We learn that Frank has two daughters who waitress at Hooters (and thus watch their dad battle 777 on the news in those iconic orange hot pants). We learn that Will and his wife aren’t talking, due to a fight over her texting someone. We learn this resulted in a restraining order – but don’t worry! Frank clears up what we are concerned about: Will didn’t hit her. That scene summarizes Mark Bomback’s approach to the script’s development: spell it out, as clear as flashing red lights at a rail crossing. Considering this, it’s shocking Bomback’s script doesn’t feature a voiceover, but then the interwoven newscasts take on this duty, so much so that at times you feel like you are watching the film in Descriptive Video.

While Washington gives his usual performance of a lifetime and Pine successfully stares down the runaway train with his piercing blue eyes, the real star of the film is 777. This runaway train is the best villain Hollywood has seen in years. It tries to kill children, innocent horses and most flagrantly, Denzel Washington. The audacity. 777 also assaults the viewer, charging the screen in shots that surely are meant to be an homage to one of the Lumière brothersfirst films. I happened to be in a theatre where the volume was so high people (yours truly included) actually complained. However, this aural onslaught worked to the film’s favour as it meant your seat would shake as the train rushed towards you, making it more interactive than Avatar’s 3D.

So, is Unstoppable good? No, of course not. But is it a fun, mindless, entertaining ride? Yes. It certainly beats any VIA Rail trip I’ve ever taken.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Breast Fest Film Fest 2010

I was recently pitched to attend this year's Breast Fest Film Fest which looks interesting based on their programme, viral campaign and, of course, is raising awareness for an amazing cause. Breasts, boobs, jugs, fun bags, what ever you call them, have a long history in film - from the metal assets in Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Pamela Anderson's constructed set. People, did (and still do) get in a tizzy about who showed them, when and how. So before I start working my way through screeners I want to know: Whose breasts were your first on the big screen?

Mine: Fay Wray in King Kong - technically not revealed, but you got the idea.

Breast Fest runs Nov. 19 - 21, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Zombie Strippers!: On watching Jenna Jameson rot

If you check-in here fairly often it shouldn't come as a surprise that I watched this. If this is your first time (welcome!) let me explain - my taste in movies is neither high nor low brow, it's unibrow. Everything Almost everything gets a fair chance and I really thought Zombie Strippers might be another fun, campy surprise. Alas, not even I had the irony capacity to enjoy it for 90 minutes.

I started out laughing - it's Bush's fourth term in office and sorry Canada, we got invaded along with France and every Arabic speaking country. Due to the vast number of wars U.S. scientists are forced to find a way to re-generate soldiers. When the re-animated corpses break loose the Z-Team (get it?) are called in. So how do we get to a strip club? Patience. Byrdflough (Zak Kilberg) (again, get it?) is bitten and when trying to escape execution by his team, he runs away and finds himself in The Rhino, an underground strip joint (Bush banned them, clearly). He bites Jenna Kat and the zombie stripping begins.

The movie is a series of "get it" moments that quickly become as tired as the bad dialogue that serves as segues to stripping scenes: Jenna Kat reading Nietzsche (get it? The idea of a smart porn star is funny), the film is set in Sartre Ville (get it? Zombie/people divide=existential crisis), Jenna Kat giving a gruesome twist on her signature move (I'll let you Google that NSFW topic).

For all it's stupidity, credit goes to Jameson. She is clearly satirizing herself as pre-bitten Kat, accepting a role which is to be expected of her. But once she is infected not only does her character's appeal increase ten-fold but she literally rots before our eyes, decomposing on the pole. Considering this film marked her branching out from an industry which is skin deep (and was made the year she officially retired from porn) there is something highly symbolic about watching her signature (her body) fester away.

But overall, the film feels like skin streached too thin over a rotting corpse - transparent and barely holding things together. Watch the trailer - all the good one-liners are in there - and save yourself 90 minutes.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tagged: When hipsters get technical

I don't win things. I'm not that person who cleans up with door prizes, wins the office charity lottery or whose seat is picked to shoot for a million dollars (take a hint MLSE). That being said, I've had better luck on Twitter which is how I won a copy of the great short doc Tagged. An NFB production, directed and producer by Toronto's Shawney Cohen and Mike Gallay, Tagged looks at RFID (radio frequency identification) chip technology and centres around Mark Stepanek's choice to get implanted with one. Only thirty minutes long, Tagged manages to cram in amazing interviews with experts ranging from Verichip's CEO, Wired's Bruce Schneier, consumer advocacy groups and a New Jersey cop who seems like he was pulled from central casting.

The approach to the topic is not so much balanced as it is unique. Clearly there are serious privacy issues with RFID technology - corporations can track your purchases for marketing purposes, theoretical governmental uses makes Minority Report and Gattaca seem plausible. On the other hand, the technology was created after 9/11 as first response teams were writing SIN numbers on their arms as they ran into the towers - RFID chips, in short, could save lives. While we are presented with the political, ethical and emotional consequences of the chips, Stepanek's quest to get implanted shows us another side of the debate: it's really fracking cool. Amaal Grafstra, who is the leader in having fun with RFID chips, meets up with Stepanek and shows him all the cool s*&t you can do when you have chips implanted in your hands: turn on your motorcycle wirelessly, unlock your door without keys, turn lights on and off RoboCop style by touching a battery. But what does our Queen West hero want to do with his new digitized digits? Rig his bike lock to unlock at the touch of his chipped hand. All of Trinity Bellwoods' inhabitants heads just snapped up in attention (including mine).

And that's what's so wonderful/terrifying about technology - it has something for everyone. While it may seem extreme to implant yourself with a metal chip the size of a large Calcium pill (spoiler: we get to watch this implant, done in Stepanek's kitchen by "Tom the piercer" from a nearby tattoo shop, and it is not pretty) U of A prof Kevin Haggerty makes the most salient point: RFID may very well be the next Facebook, where we sign up and give away information with resigned fatalism since everyone else is doing it. This may be a grim outlook, but at least hipsters everywhere will be unlocking their bikes with ease.