4/13/05:

I gave myself a day to rest on Tuesday, and then returned to the movie-watching in full-force today.

Films I saw today: Layer Cake, R-Point, The Big Red One



Layer Cake

Despite its misleading and rather stupid title, Layer Cake is not about a tasty dessert; it's a British gangster film in the style of Guy Ritchie movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Not coincidentally, the man who produced those two films--Matthew Vaughn--also produced this one. And this time--the first time ever for him--he also got into the director's chair. The movie is based on a novel by J. J. Connolly, who also wrote the screenplay. It's got a pretty great cast, with Daniel Craig (Road to Perdition) in the part of the unnamed main character (he's listed as XXXXX in the credits), Colm Meaney ("Star Trek: The Next Generation") as a colleague of XXXXX's named Gene, Jason Flemyng (Snatch, Lock, Stock) in a small part as a drug dealer named Crazy Larry (he appears only in flashbacks), and the magnificent Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) as criminal mastermind Eddie Temple. Most of the other folks in the movie I didn't recognize (well, that guy playing Jimmy Price--Kenneth Cranham--looked familiar), but there doesn't seem to be a bad actor in the bunch. And despite the fact that it does have similarities in style, plot, and characters to Ritchie's films, it's still definitely its own movie, with its own story to tell about its own unique bunch of blokes, and it's quite excellent at that.

That story is, of course, labyrinthine, and loaded with violence, double-crosses, dark humor, and thick British accents. It begins with XXXXX at the top of his game, enjoying his life as a successful drug dealer, but planning to quit the business soon and retire with the considerable sum of money he's collected. But of course, there's that last job he has to do before he can get out and, of course, it turns out to be far more complex and dangerous than it at first seems. XXXXX's boss, Mr. Price, tells him to sell some Ecstasy pills being smuggled in by a guy known as the Duke and, oh, can he also do him the favor of tracking down his friend Eddie Temple's daughter, Charlie? She seems to have run off with some guy.

But it turns out Eddie Temple doesn't particularly want people looking for his daughter, and it further turns out that the Duke is a fuck-up who stole those pills from a very dangerous foreigner with a talented hitman on the payroll known as Dragan. XXXXX quickly finds himself in over his head, engaged in all the kinds of activities he's already told us (in an amusing opening narration sequence) drug dealers should never get involved in.

To tell you more of the plot would ruin the movie for you, so instead I'll just stop here and tell you to go see the movie yourself. Even if you've already seen films like it, I guarantee this one will engage and surprise you. It's not to be missed.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

I scheduled myself a bit of a tight day today; after Layer Cake, I had to hustle all the way across town to my next movie in a little over 25 minutes. Luckily, the short that was supposed to proceed LC was cancelled, and the film playing before my next movie was running late, so I made it to the theater before they'd even started letting in the All Access folks. Once inside we were treated to an amusing introduction from a nice older gentleman who admitted that he knew nothing at all about the movie that we were about to see: R-Point.

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R-Point

R-Point is a South Korean horror film that takes the usual horror movie cliches, packages them up, and ships them off to an interesting new setting: Vietnam, circa 1972. This was a fascinating idea to me, until I realized it was just a device used by the filmmakers so they could accompany their horror movie cliches with plenty of war movie cliches. Admittedly, the film does have moments when it is able to combine creepy, haunting visuals with disturbing sounds to create a genuinely scary sequence. But overall the acting and dialogue are so overwrought and melodramatic, the events of the plot so hackneyed and repetitive, and the logic of the story so nonsensical, that I was left bored and irritated.

The story opens interestingly enough. A radio operator is picking up transmissions from a platoon with the call sign Mad Dog 3. Their signal's coming from a location called R-Point. But only one badly injured survivor was recovered from that platoon, and he swears everyone else is dead. The army brass wants to know what's going on out there, so they round up a new platoon to check it out.

Of course, to make up the platoon, we need a cold-blooded hard-ass, a guy who's strung a bit too tight, a guy with a shameful secret, a crazy guy, a funny guy, a stuck-up jackass, and a guy who's really too young to be in the army but lied about his age so he could get in (actually, I can't remember if they covered that particular cliche, but they probably did). Oh, and one of the guys has to have had his friend killed by a Viet Con who was disguised as a peasant woman. It would also be good if one or more of the guys were just about to finish their tours of duty when they were called out for this one last mission, which will go horribly awry.

The scenes in which the soldiers in the platoon trade jokes and insults reminded me strongly of when we meet the marines in Aliens. Many scenes, for obvious reasons, reminded me of Apocalypse Now. The one soldier bouncing a ball against a box over and over again reminded me of The Great Escape. Basically the movie was constantly reminding me of other, better movies that it had cribbed from in sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, ways.

Anyway, eventually the platoon arrives at creepy central and, inevitably, creepy stuff starts going down. I won't go into specific details in case you want to check this one out at some point, but I will tell you one thing: there's only so many times you can pull the, "Hey, guess what! That guy you were just talking to? He's...DEAD! He's been dead for years!!!" trick before it just gets tired and isn't scary anymore. And the movie pulls this trick about six times. I'll admit to being creeped out the first couple of times, but by the third or fourth time, I was kind of wondering whether anybody we'd met in the entire movie was actually alive.

There's also a pacing problem. Near the end, when things should be speeding up to a mighty and horrific crescendo, they grind achingly to a near halt. There's a fine line between suspense and boredom, and R-Point steps most decidedly over that line. Eventually we find ourselves counting the minutes until the next inevitable possession and killing. And hey, are they being possessed? It seems like it, but it also seems like that's not what was happening at the beginning of the movie. R-Point never seems to settle on what it is exactly that's going on here. There's the ghosts of the Vietnamese killed here many, many years ago by the Chinese, and then the ghosts of various soldiers killed here recently, but then there's also the ghost of some guy who wasn't even killed here at all, and some of the ghosts appear normal, but others have lame CGI skull faces, and are the ghosts actually killing people, or are they possessing people and making them kill other people? Or are they impersonating people? Or what the hell?

It would help if we at least cared about the characters, but most of them are such obvious stereotypes that it's hard to even see them as distinct human beings. Not to mention their melodramatic, corny, over-the-top dialogue and acting.

So yeah, R-Point has moments, but in general it's a disappointment.

My Poll Rating: Fair

Intermission

I had to head back across town to my next movie, but this time I had plenty of extra time. Too much, really; I ended up sitting around with nothing to do for quite a while. But eventually they let us into the theater and I met up with my friend Sam. The theater filled up pretty much to bursting for this film--an impressive crowd for a screening of an old movie late on a Wednesday night.

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The Big Red One

The Big Red One is a WWII movie which was originally released in 1980 with a severely edited running time of 113 minutes. In 2004, film critic Richard Schickel, using a copy of the original shooting script for guidance, made use of old footage dug out of studio vaults and put together a 158-minute long version of the film that conforms as closely as possible to (now deceased) director Samuel Fuller's original vision. The result is a truly excellent, though not completely flawless, film that powerfully captures the reality, and the surreality, of war.

The Big Red One follows the story of an American soldier (listed in the credits only as "The Sergeant") and his squad as they fight to survive on the front lines in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater of the second World War. The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) and his squad are in the First Infantry, and the title refers to the nickname of that division, and also to its emblem--a large red number one. There are apparently numerous legends about where this icon came from, but its origin story in the film is told in the prologue, and is set at the end of WWI. The Sergeant--under the eyes of a giant statue of the crucifixion, no less--kills a German soldier and takes an insignia from his hat that looks like a red one. He takes it back to his commander, where he learns that a treaty has been signed and the war has been over for about four hours. The Sergeant is horrified. By killing a man after a certain piece of paper had been signed, he's crossed the thin line between an excusable act of war and an inexcusable act of murder. The film will return again and again to these distinctions, examining what it means to wage war, and what war does to the men who wage it.

After the prologue, we flash forward to WWII, and the movie really begins. The Sergeant is back fighting again, this time leading a platoon of rookie soldiers, including Robert Carradine as aspiring writer Private Zab, and Mark Hamill (yes, that's Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill; this was right after Empire Strikes Back came out) as Private Griff. Griff is a familiar war movie character type--the guy who freezes up under fire, and decides he doesn't want to kill anybody. But Hamill's acting and Fuller's screenplay give the character a lot more depth than the shallow stereotype we're used to.

In an exchange with The Sergeant, Griff brings us back to those important distinctions again. "I can't murder anybody," he says. The Sergeant responds, "We don't murder; we kill." Griff protests, "It's the same thing." "The hell it is, Griff," the Sergeant shoots back. "You don't murder animals; you kill 'em."

The adventures of The Sergeant and his squad are spread out over a series of disconnected sequences, and this episodic nature leads to one of the movie's few flaws: It makes an already long film seem even longer--about as long as WWII itself, actually. The separate episodes of the film are held together only by the presence of the same characters, and by the narration of Carradine's Private Zab. Zab tells the story of himself and his squadmates with dark humor and piercing honesty. Zab on snipers: "You know how you smoke out a sniper? You send a guy out in the open and you see if he gets shot. They thought that one up at West Point." Zab on the fresh recruits in their unit: "By now we'd come to look at the replacements as dead men who temporarily had the use of their arms and legs. They came and went so fast and so regularly that sometimes we didn't even learn their names. Truth is, after a while, we sort of avoided gettin' to know them." Zab on weaponry: "The Bangalore Torpedo was 50 feet long and packed with 85 pounds of TNT and you assembled it along the way. I'd love to meet the asshole who invented it."

The film swings from comedy to tragedy in a heartbeat, the war often descending suddenly and violently amidst the horseplay of the squad members. In fact, the story proceeds almost like a nightmare, jumping from scene to scene, with realistic events followed immediately by surreal, incongruous moments, like when the men meet a boy carrying his mother's body behind him on a cart, looking for the means and the space to bury her. The film is suffused with death and blood and sex and life. At the beginning of the movie, as they prepare to land on a beach, the soldiers cover the muzzles of their rifles with condoms to keep them from getting wet. Later, a member of the squad wears condoms on his fingers as makeshift gloves as he delivers a baby in a tank--"I'm getting horny," he admits to The Sergeant. At another point in the story, Griff makes love to an undercover resistance agent in an insane asylum. As these men walk along the edge of death, life takes on a kind of primal urgency for them all.

The acting is pretty much universally excellent, but no actor in the film gives his character more depth, or is more fascinating and lovable, than Lee Marvin as The Sergeant. The man is a revelation. Though The Sergeant is tough and grizzled, and kills the enemy ruthlessly, he also has a heart, and it is nearly shattered by some of the things he goes through. When he stabs a German soldier, only to discover that the war has ended four hours ago, the film has come full circle. When The Sergeant realizes that the German he's attacked is still alive, he says, "You're going to live, even if I have to blow your brains out." And survival, the movie tells us in summation, is the only real glory in war.

The Big Red One is a fantastic film. Although it occasionally hits us a little too hard with what it's trying to say (having a gigantic Christ on a cross staring down at the carnage was a little much, for instance), and sometimes dips into cliche and melodrama (both of which are hard to avoid in war films), in general it's a subtle and beautifully constructed meditation on life during wartime.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Epilogue

Watching The Big Red One late at night after I'd already seen two movies was an exhausting experience, especially since the screening was interrupted by the fire alarm going off. This has happened to me at the film festival before, and at this particular theater, too, and it's never a fun time. It was a false alarm on both occasions, thank goodness, but in this particular case we had to wait quite some time before we were allowed back into the building, and while we were waiting outside, the film was still rolling inside. Somebody eventually went back in and stopped it, but by that time we had missed at least 15 minutes worth of film, and, we were told, there was no way to rewind. This was unfortunate, but luckily, as I said above, the film is very episodic, and it was easy enough to pick up the thread of the story again. Still, I would like to see those missing 15 minutes some day...

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Jim Genzano





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