A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: August, 2013

“To the Wonder” (2013)

"To the Wonder" poster


If the films of Terrence Malick didn’t already divide you, 2011’s The Tree of Life took care of that. It was the most abstract work yet by an artist with a poetic storytelling quality all his own, a movie that affirmed a cinematic master’s genius for some and prompted exasperated walkouts for others. The Tree of Life was evocative enough for me to mostly get behind it, but I must confess that Malick’s latest — To the Wonder — totally lost me. As with all of his features, this is a gorgeous film laid out in a way that you really don’t see often. But this time, Malick’s fascination with showing the beauty in all he sees around us gets the best of his characters, rendering them not human beings but devices to recite stilted dialogue better suited for open mic night at the Java Hut.

Neil (Ben Affleck) lives in Oklahoma. Marina (Olga Kurylenko) lives in France. While on holiday in Paris, the two meet, aimlessly walk around like only people in arthouse movies do, and fall in love. So strong is their romance that Neil offers to move Marina and her young daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), back to the U.S. with him. The offer is accepted, and soon, Marina is cavorting in wheat fields, dizzy with affection for her new man. But it’s not long before her cooling relationship with Neil and Tatiana’s difficulty in adapting to America sends Marina moseying on back to Europe. However, she’s not permanently out of the picture, for just as Neil starts reconnecting with a childhood friend (Rachel McAdams), she experiences a chance of heart and ponders returning to her former love.

On a number of fronts, To the Wonder is unusual for a Terrence Malick joint. It’s the fastest he’s followed up his previous film (arriving in theaters just two years after The Tree of Life), it’s set entirely in the present day, and, strangest of all, it hasn’t been a smash with critics. I’ve heard some of Malick’s detractors ask what makes To the Wonder so different, seeing as how it’s undeniably Malick in structure, but it comes down to a matter of relatability. The Tree of Life threw in dinosaurs and all manner of cosmic visuals, but keeping it grounded were scenes meant to empathize us with the characters, to remind us of the highs and lows we experienced in our own childhoods. The trouble with To the Wonder is that no one ever feels like they’re actual people. I anticipated artistic license to be taken and the ensemble cast to act more wistful than is socially acceptable, but it’s taken to such an extreme here, almost everyone’s humanity is outright robbed. For a film so based in emotions, it really doesn’t impart any understanding as to what makes its characters tick, leaving what I assume to be its most raw and revealing moments feeling like spaz attacks that come out of nowhere.

To the Wonder‘s woes are through no fault of the performers, who seem entirely at the mercy of Malick’s liberal editing techniques. You can see what attracted actors like Affleck, McAdams, and Javier Bardem to the project, but the results are a hodgepodge of disconnected monologues and vague narration that make most of them look utterly lost. Kurylenko particularly comes across as outright schizophrenic, what with Marina’s countless unexplained mood swings and chronic Stare-Into-the-Distance Syndrome. Malick spends more time having Marina’s voiceovers tell us how much she loves Neil and how dazzled she is with the world than showing us evidence of why she thinks so or what sets off her violent fits. Affleck tries but doesn’t fare much better, as his near-catatonic Neil barely croaks out a word or relay any insight about his own mindset, and McAdams is virtually a non-presence with no bearing on the drama whatsoever. Only Bardem, as a self-doubting priest, is on the right track in rooting out what wisdom he can in a picture that often feels jumbled up for the sake of being jumbled up.

It’s a hollow disappointment, yes, but To the Wonder isn’t without merit. Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography is absolutely incredible, and despite Malick emerging as his own worst enemy in terms of conveying his themes, you occasionally capture hints of a deeper story about how we deal with reality’s harshness that you wish it ended up telling. My inner snob has stuck up for Malick a number of times, but with To the Wonder, the man’s on his own.

“This Girl Is Badass” (2011)

"This Girl Is Badass" poster

Thailand is the Troma of martial arts cinema. Other countries have their over-the-top exports (hell, Japan’s Cutie Honey movie filled its quota of zany for three millennia), but the Thai seem to have a knack for taking the ridiculous to especially towering heights. Titles like Dynamite Warrior and The Bodyguard (not that one) are replete with random, bawdy flourishes that either make for a raucous good time or grind on your soul. Placed directly in the middle is This Girl Is Badass, which takes a typical Hollywood action flick’s ultra-thin story and fills in all possible gaps with some of the straight-up dumbest humor you’ve ever witnessed. Sometimes it’s hilarious, and sometimes it’s as funny as a wake, but most of the time, you’d rather it just dump the schtick and get back to the action.

Fresh off her incredible work in the underrated Chocolate, Jeeja Yanin plays Jukkalan, our eponymous tough gal. She’s a bike messenger who uses a variety of flips, kicks, and tricks to get her job done at a lightning-fast pace. But cross her, and she’ll unleash a flurry of moves that’ll leave you with spoke marks where your face used to be. Unfortunately, two local mobsters make this mistake when they both hire Jukkalan to make some deliveries and try stiffing her on the payment. While Jukkalan is occupied with staying a step ahead of every thug and assassin hired to take her out, a childhood acquaintance (Chalermsak Yamkamung) pines for her from afar, unaware that she’d rather be cozying up to the guitar-strumming hunk next door.

Honestly, I could be way off on that plot summary, because even with what little narrative it has, This Girl Is Badass has an unreasonable amount of trouble making sense. First the villains are trying to put one over on Jukkalan (for no other reason than that they’re just jerks), then Jukkalan maybe is stealing from them, then all parties are getting along hunky-dory; it takes talent to complicate a story as simple as “girl beats up bad guys.” But, you may be asking, that plot stuff never matters in these movies — how’s the action? Well, it’s not a thrill-a-minute punchfest, but This Girl Is Badass has some decent fights and stuntwork under its belt. Yanin’s physicality really is as awesome as the title proclaims; there’s no shortage of slo-mo shots of her connecting blow after crushing blow, and her energy perks up even the more sluggishly-paced smackdowns.

But there’s one opponent for whom Yanin is no match, and that’s her own vehicle’s sense of humor. You know that This Girl Is Badass has no aspirations of seriousness when the first five minutes alone introduce us to Jukkalan’s crazy-eyebrowed boss, a high-pitched crime lord, and a gym dedicated solely to training dwarf fighters. None of this or the silliness to follow (which extends to a bickering crew of female killers and a bad guy who recites his own theme music) amount to more than simple sight gags and running jokes…and that’s kind of the problem. We get more scenes of characters just calling each other idiots than we do of Jukkalan taking out would-be attackers, and while maybe it’s a cultural thing that got lost in translation, the resulting laughs are intermittent at best. Bless Yanin for trying her hardest, but she’s not onscreen nearly enough to fully distract us from the lame comedy routines and weirdly-tailored supporting players.

I wish I could champion This Girl Is Badass as a pleasure guilty enough to share with friends, but enduring shenanigans this goofy in one sitting is a daunting feat. Though the fight scenes are pretty cool and without question the best parts of the movie, some brave YouTuber will eventually compile them into a supercut and save you time/tested patience. Jeeja Yanin is a force I hope to see unleashed more often in the near future, but a mess like This Girl Is Badass isn’t going to do her career as a major league butt-kicker any favors.

“The Snorkel” (1958)

"The Snorkel" poster


Hammer’s thrillers may not have had the ornate style and graphic content of the studio’s famous horror catalogue, but they held their own just fine. Their frugal budgets and smaller ensembles often resulted in more personal works that had to get creative in coaxing viewers to the edges of their seats. While The Snorkel isn’t a great or even particularly memorable film, it nicely reflects this philosophy of marrying suspense with simplicity. In other words, it gets the job done, enough so that you wish it had found less repetitive ways of padding out its one-hour premise to an extra thirty minutes.

Our movie opens on a murder en media res. As his wife suffocates to death on a gas leak above him, Paul Decker (Peter Van Eyck) hides beneath the floorboards safe and sound with the titular breathing apparatus. With the police declaring a suicide, it seems as if Decker has pulled off the perfect crime…or so he thinks. His step-daughter Candy (Mandy Miller) immediately proclaims him the killer upon hearing of her mother’s demise, having suspected him of doing in her real father years ago. Of course, being an emotionally-disturbed youngster puts Candy in the unfortunate position of having her pleas fall upon disbelieving ears. But Decker’s not about to take any chances, as he bides his time for the chance to spring upon Candy the same deadly ordeal as her mom.

The Snorkel is a “girl who cried wolf” story without much deviation from the formula. Candy tries to expose Decker, no one will listen, Decker barely misses killing her, rinse and repeat. It doesn’t get more daring than that, unless you count how Candy’s emotional state is used against her; her disregarded warnings have an added sadness when everyone around her is constantly reassuring her. Otherwise, if you thought up your own movie based on the above synopsis, The Snorkel would be at least 90% accurate to it. Most of the film’s dread stems from being told in great part through the villain’s perspective. The wordless opening sequence (which really is a fantastic hook) has Decker putting the finishing touches on his crime scene, before following his various thwarted attempts to put Candy out of commission. The first couple of times The Snorkel employs this technique are nice and intense, but around the dozenth occasion on which a supporting character interrupts a murder in the making, you lose hope of the flick having any new tricks to show you.

But to be fair, what works about The Snorkel does so pretty well and sticks around more than it goes to waste. The distractingly ADR’ed Van Eyck is a snug fit in Decker’s shoes, a pro at casting a cold-blooded gaze Candy’s way one second and playing the part of concerned guardian the next. It’s important in stories like these for the audience to buy the innocent face the villain puts on for the world, but Van Eyck has us covered. Though it takes Candy an alarming amount of time to put two and two together in terms of how her mother’s murder was executed, Miller’s performance is a sympathetic one that keeps us on her side. She’s even up to the task when asked to display some range, as when Candy openly taunts her step-dad with some information she knows and makes a seemingly chilling decision at the end. Plus, while it’s chiefly set at a spacious Italian villa, the movie has a neat claustrophobic feel, not overbearingly grim but enclosed enough to make you sweat.

Ultimately, The Snorkel is a filler film, a product made to be second on a double bill underneath one of Hammer’s legacy titles. Its weird name and featured gimmick are the only things that might entice casual viewers to give it a watch, but it’s a perfectly decent thriller that passes the time. Should you be a Hammer junkie looking to cross something off the checklist, you won’t regret hitting up The Snorkel.

“A Return to Salem’s Lot” (1987)

"A Return to Salem's Lot" poster


Proper Stephen King adaptations are few and far between in movies, so just think of how far up Merde Creek the rare sequels are. Okay, I’ll admit that a follow-up to Salem’s Lot at least makes more sense than extending Sometimes They Come Back into a goddamned trilogy (seriously, how did that become a series?). But when you bear witness to as goofball of a treatment as the one writer/director Larry Cohen gave A Return to Salem’s Lot, you realize fast how much of a good thing got ruined. It’s a dark satire with some neat ideas that simply has no business being a Salem’s Lot successor — at least not in its current, cartoonish, horribly-composed state.

Joe Weber (Michael Moriarty) has chronicled the most exotic tribes and civilizations scattered across the globe. Unfortunately, his travels haven’t taught him how to be a better dad, as he’s at a total loss when left to look after his disturbed son Jeremy (Ricky Addison Reed) for a while. Thinking some country air will do the boy good, Joe takes him to his old aunt’s hometown of Salem’s Lot, which seems to have undergone quite the terrifying makeover. Vampires have long since assumed control of this quaint village, but in exchange for his life and Jeremy’s, the ghouls have made Joe a bargain: write a “bible” of their kind’s history, to eventually share with humanity. Reluctantly, Joe agrees, only to find out quick that no amount of cheery pretense can mask an evil as ancient as the one surrounding him.

If its predecessor weren’t the one Tobe Hooper movie I actually like, maybe A Return to Salem’s Lot wouldn’t grind my gears as much as it does. This is so dramatically different in tone and irrevocably out-of-whack with continuity, I have a hard time believing this wasn’t a completely unrelated script in the beginning. It’s more of a soapbox upon which Cohen can broadcast the sort of social commentary he’s famous for smuggling within schlocky horror shows, and in all honesty, he has a clever hook going for him. Presenting the populace of Salem’s Lot as a horde of grotesque demons hiding beneath the impossibly squeaky-clean veneer of small-town America is a subversive master stroke. But Cohen promptly undoes all that good will by substituting sitcommy gag lines (a vampire whose husband won’t let her consume human blood: “He says I have a drinking problem!”) for exploring themes that are ripe for the dissecting (a mention of Salem’s Lot adapting to avoid the AIDS epidemic is immediately glossed over).

But A Return to Salem’s Lot‘s most persistently nagging crime is the staunch middle finger it gives to continuing the original movie’s plot. Remember how Salem’s Lot was an average town that gradually got overtaken by a vampiric scourge? Well, according to Cohen, not only has it always been infested with bloodsuckers from the start, vampires have been embedded in American society for centuries and even came over on an undead equivalent of the Mayflower. It certainly ruins the mystery of wondering what hellhole birthed Kurt Barlow, who has been supplanted here by a blueberry-hued Douche-ula in one of the most hilariously weak monster make-ups I’ve ever seen. Between the trite father/son drama, anemic gore effects, and bargain bin production value, it’s impossible to take A Return to Salem’s Lot seriously for even the faintest moment. Our one saving grace is the truly badass presence of filmmaker Sam Fuller, who excels in a sizable acting role as a crotchety Nazi hunter who joins the war against the fanged ones.

A Return to Salem’s Lot is a crummy ordeal that really could’ve killed. It already had a premise that set itself apart from and expanded on the Hooper film, but it blew it by shelling out more lame parody than atmospheric horror. A Return to Salem’s Lot is an utter joke, both as a vampire flick and as something bearing the already-sullied name of Stephen King.