Today's MRQ, which is also the 777th(!) entry on this site, tackles 6 films available for streaming on Netflix, as well as one film I saw via HBO Go. This time out, I'm offering a complete grab-bag of genres: Water's Edge, Valkyrie, Bernie, Man of Thai Chi, Bobby Fischer Against the World, The Collection, Hellraiser. Enjoy!
Oh, wow, it's been so long since I've seen a b-grade thriller that wasn't awful. This time out, I tuned in because the movie stars my spirit guide, Nathan Fillion. I reviewed Serenity, the Firefly film recently, and just discussed his turn in Much Ado About Nothing, so what better way to glean some insight than to see how this actor did back in 2003. Which brings us to Water's Edge.
The premise is simple: Robert (Fillion) and Molly (Chandra West) are devastated by the death of their child. Broke, they move into Robert's father's cabin while Robert tries to write a new novel. But soon, Robert spies a cop who's about to murder a young woman, Rae (Vaugier). Now, the couple must face local corruption while trying to learn why the beautiful female was nearly killed.
To be honest, I was surprised both by the cast that was assembled, as well as by how good everyone was. It's true that I always expect Fillion, Daniel Baldwin, and Emmanuelle Vaugier to be solid - and damn if Fillion isn't in good form here. But even the actors that I didn't know were just fine.
Similarly, the film puts careful, solid effort into slowly unspooling Robert and Molly's backstory, in addition to keeping the audience guessing about Rae and her motivation. Characters are introduced appropriately, with nice little callbacks and foreshadowing and surprises strewn throughout the picture.
But I am so positive since I can see WE was made on a tight budget, and the corners weren't cut in the acting, story, or dialogue. The filmmakers just didn't have the resources to add more elements to make it better. You can notice it during a beatdown Nathan receives, which is shown at a distance, and in a chase scene where Fillion pushes a moving table to slow down his pursuer - it's like the shop owner was standing by, yelling at them not to break or knock down anything.
What can I fault then? The story could've been allowed to stew a bit more. It feels like there could've been more ambiguity here, but things play out quickly enough that there's just not enough "thrill" in this thriller.
Similarly, WE really wants to broach "sexy thriller" territory. And while one steamy scene shows a little heat, the sex scene with Fillion is a total dud (because Robert is pass-out drunk). I could imagine the moment being filmed that way maybe because young children were nearby. It's not that the movie needed nudity or longer amorous scenes, but the heat isn't really there in the writing, either.
While I can't really recommend Water's Edge - the content feels more like a TNT movie, let's say - I do like that it is very professionally-made and -acted. Even the actors with brief scenes do a good job, and that's way better than I anticipated.
This is a very difficult movie to judge. On the one hand, it looks beautiful and the cast is loaded with ringers - Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy, and Bernard Hill. On the other hand, it's very, very slow and, what's worse, almost the whole affair can be described as a series of conversation scenes.
Seriously, one conversation leads to another leads to another here. This cycle is only broken up about 5 times, and each such break is too short. What's worse is that Valkyrie, a 2008 picture, feels way too much like a typical Tom Cruise film.
Now, I did some research into the real person that Mr. Cruise portrays, and it is true that Col. Stauffenberg was the lead figure in this conspiracy. But he only assumed that role in the final month of the conspiracy to kill Hitler (did I forget to mention that this is the movie's premise? It is.). Yet, for over two hours, you get a movie that barely wants to stray from Cruise. In every scene he's in, from early on, he's the man in charge - always knowing what to do and giving orders even to men that are older and higher-ranking. Why? Well... it's Tom.
Valkyrie is laden with fine qualities - forget the acting and brilliant cinematography, it has a great score and is laden with historical veracity (God, the number of cigarettes people smoked back then!). For all that, the slow pace and conversations make this picture drag. And the constant scenes of Cruise-glorification are just over-the-top. It's a shame, as this is a very interesting story, and minus those failings, Singer and McQuarrie would have teamed up to create another excellent heist picture.
When my roommate said we should all watch Bernie, I kind of rolled my eyes. I find that a little bit of Jack Black goes a long way, and I was skeptical that I would really enjoy this film. Instead, I found myself sucked right in by this true story of a top-notch embalmer whose life goes crazy because he's just too friendly.
Bernie Tiede is the best man in his field, a good and generous Christian who's (hyper-)active in his community - a fact the film takes 10 funny minutes to convey. The tone changes, tho, when he befriends the local recluse, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Marjorie is rich, but she's also demanding, harsh, and possessive. As Bernie becomes more involved in the older woman's life, he finds that the price of all the free trips and dinners is a loss of freedom and a ton of verbal abuse.
Bernie allows Jack Black to ham it up - the real-life subject was boisterous and flamboyant - but he also neatly conveys the emotional contortions that Mr. Tiede experiences as his life becomes great before becoming really, really bad. Filmed in a partial-documentary style, this comedy/drama was quite good. It often seemed to border on parody, but the humor, horror, and sadness in this story is all too real.
We all know some crazy person who's lonely and lashes out at everyone around them for no real reason. We don't all get to see what a terrible impact they can have on the good people around them.
Man of Thai Chi
Man of Thai Chi truly floored me - it's a smart and well-written kung fu film, the fights are straight out of the golden age of Hong Kong cinema, and it is brilliantly-directed by Keanu Reeves(!). MoTC tells the story of "Tiger" Chen Lin-Hu, a young man who's running around in circles: he has a delivery job, helps his parents out, and spends hours at a Thai Chi temple where he is the only student.
Like many young people, Tiger has a lot of frustrations to deal with - a problem that he can't resolve by simple meditation, as his master advises. Soon, Tiger hits a few speedbumps at the same time that an underground fighting ring learns of his amazing skills. He then has to face an incredible and twisty set of complications as a result of his choices.
Keanu does double duty here, and he excels as both actor/antagonist and as the director. The movie is well-paced, nicely servicing all of the plots, emotional beats, and characters. Moreover, MoTC is beautiful. There are many perfect camera tricks, like a pan across the sky that uses a time lapse to show night turn into day. There's also a lovely tracking shot that is genuinely gratifying. Honestly, I've never seen so much of what a Chinese city looks like, much less seen it represented in such a pretty way.
If you're in the mood for a modern fight film that contains some Eastern philosophy and stands up nicely compared to the early days of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Sammo Hung, you can't do better than Man of Thai Chi.
Bobby Fischer Against the World
Bobby Fischer Against the World was the rainy-day movie chosen by myself and my roommates, and I have to say that I am so happy we pulled this one out of all of HBO Go's offerings. Through videos and interviews with the man himself, as well as his lifelong friends and peers, this documentary offer a deep look into Bobby Fischer - his childhood, his days as the best chess player on Earth, and his eventual decline into seclusion and madness. And, commendably, instead of just giving us examples of the man's eccentricities, people do comment about how his internal problems relate so uniquely to the same things that made him such a strong player.
Ultimately, it's a really sad tale. Not only was Bobby's childhood spent in-doors, he never knew his father and had a difficult relationship with his mother. You feel bad for the cocky and quirky genius even before you learn that he got tangled up in extreme religious beliefs. I've been around some crazy people before, but it's the tragedy of mental illness that makes you regard his eventual Anti-Semitism and political viciousness with a true measure of pity. And comparing the cocksure youth to the grizzled, angry mountain man-type that he became is frankly, depressing.
For all his promise and intellect, Bobby couldn't help but drive pals away, even as he isolated himself from others. Nor could he keep from being such a conspiracy nut, such an obsessively embittered and resentful jerk, that there was no hope for him to lead a happy or a healthy life.
While the documentary made us all rather sad, it was an edifying watch - perfectly-executed and quite effective in achieving its aims. Where I expected to come out of this with many thoughts about chess, I wound up thinking long and hard about personality flaws and how they can eventually lead to full-blown insanity. If you want to learn about that topic - or about the man, or about the heyday of chess itself - I strongly recommend BFAtW
Writing a good horror film is a huge challenge, since you must satisfy the demands of the genre while still telling a good story. Unless you're just silly or tasteless or a kid, it's not enough to have shocking and graphic violence in a movie - it has to be in service of something. When done right, a brutal moment provides a big statement about a character, or a picture's world, or about the themes and statements that the story makes.
To that end, The Collection is a half-step away from torture porn like Hostel, and is much closer to a movie like the first Saw film. It still doesn't get anywhere near pictures like 28 Days Later, Cube, or Peter Jackson's Brain Dead and Bad Taste.
The Collection is an follow-up to a 2006 film called The Collector (I read up on the latter). The thrust of each film is that there's a really nasty guy who sets up vicious booby traps to cripple and kill his victims. The bad guy dresses like The Gimp from Pulp Fiction, and one thief plays a leading role in each movie.
The story here is that the Collector has apparently upgraded to mass slaughter, and is now kidnapping some of his surviving victims. Arkin, the thief from the first movie, escapes - but is then forced to help free a teenage girl who was abducted on the same night that he got free.
To its credit, the film assembles good actors. Christopher McDonald does fine work in his cameo, as does Josh Stewart as the thief. I feel the same way about the lead female, Emma Fitzpatrick. She's just fine as Emma, the scared young woman who must make her way out of a sadistic slaughter house. All of the actors are good, in fact, and I'm really glad that the dialogue was similarly solid.
However, there is nothing that is really said about the characters. People don't grow or change, nor is some larger statement made about human beings or society at large. As such, despite the fact that it is inventive and very well filmed, The Collection still feels like a cheap excuse to fetishize violence.
Hellraiser is an odd duck, to say the least. Written and directed by Clive Barker, the movie is brisk and gruesome and severely off-putting. The big problem is that while it excels at creepy imagery, it feels like more scenes were needed to connect everything together.
We start with an introductory sequence that shows a decadent guy. You get the feeling that he traveled to the Far East to engage in deeply-wrong sex acts. We see him purchase a puzzle box from a creepy man. Then we see that the big surprise is that solving the box results in torture and death.
Next, we're with Larry, Frank's brother, and Julia, Larry's wife. They go to the old family home to find Frank missing. While Larry sets about sorting out the abandoned home, Julia starts having flashbacks to when she and Frank used to do the nasty.
And then things get even nastier as Frank's skinned body pops up out of nowhere and starts seducing Julia all over again. Worse still, she goes for it. Now Julia is drawing people back to the house so Frank can get his skin back. And Kirsty, Larry's daughter, gets involved as she starts seeing crazy things in the old familial homestead.
Here, Barker shows a knack for Lovecraftian tales. There is some kind of underlying mythology here, tho it's never really described to the audience. Similarly, lust and madness are writ large, and we see the antagonists tumble right down the sickest rabbit hole ever.
But this story - the story being told by an actual novelist this time out - is half-cooked at best. And even good acting from Andrew Robinson (Larry), Sean Chapman (Frank), and Clare Higgins (Julia) cannot save the material. Hellraiser is, in the end, too much style and too little substance - even by horror film standards. The craziest thing is that in tone and style and the way some things seem skipped over, this movie most resembles the cult horror pic Phantasm. I'm not sure if that's a slight or not.