Category Archives: ★

Ashfall (2019, Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun)

I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to see Ashfall if it hadn’t been for a blogathon. Maybe never. While I’m a Ma Dong-seok fan because how can you not be, I’ve always been lukewarm on top-billed Lee Byung-hun. Lee’s not actually the lead; the lead is Ha Jung-woo, who I don’t follow. So, yeah… probably wouldn’t have seen Ashfall if I hadn’t specifically been looking for a disaster movie and also wanted to watch a (relatively) new South Korean movie.

So I’m glad I saw Ashfall, against the various odd. Writers and directors Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun don’t have many—or possibly any—original ideas in the film, which has a real-life volcano Baekdu Mountain erupting and threatening all life on the Korean Peninsula, North and South. Lee’s a North Korean double agent (or triple agent), it’s never clear. Possibly quadruple. Ma is a Korean-American scientist who finds himself drug into the government response because he’s the one who’s been trying to tell them the volcano is dangerous—I wonder if it’s the Korean equivalent of a Yellowstone “vulcanist”–for years. Ha is the Army bomb tech who’s got two days left on his compulsory military service. Ha’s a bit of an eccentric who can never remember his appointments with pregnant wife Suzy Bae, who doesn’t quite look sixteen years younger than Ha but definitely looks a little younger. They try to play it off with Ha being just immature but… he’s more like just unreliable. It’s unclear.

So the President (Choi Kwang-il very good in a small part) puts Jeon Hye-jin in charge of figuring out how to not go the way of Pompeii and she brings in Ma, who’s got a plan involving detonating nuclear warheads in a copper mine because Ma really likes Broken Arrow, but South Korea doesn’t have any nukes so they have to go steal some from North Korea even though they’re really friendly in this nearish, post-nuclear North Korea, but also pro-disarmament North Korea. Not important. What’s important is spy Lee knows where there are some nukes and they know where Lee’s at because he’s got a GPS tracker in him. The real Army is going in to extract him and go find some nukes, Ha’s team is there to get the nukes transferred into a special case to nuke the volcano.

It’s kind of a Lee and Ha buddy movie, also kind of not because they don’t have any common foes. Not really. The U.S. Army shows up to humiliate South Korea, which Lee finds really amusing, but they’re not really a plot impediment. They’re just something else the movie throws into the batter, albeit with a lot of overt subtexts. Robert Curtis Brown is actually find as the shitty American ambassador, which fooled me into thinking it wouldn’t be crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest but then, of course, it was crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest. Michael Ray is profoundly bad as the general. Though Jai Day could be worse as the guy on the ground.

So most of it’s just Lee and Ha being awful to one another while getting through “Mission: Impossible: Bomb Disposal Unit” with some earthquake stuff thrown in. There’s some great CGI disaster shots in Ashfall but there’s also a lot of bad directing during the disaster scenes too. Kim and Lee are far more successful combining narrative tropes than they are executing mix and match action set pieces. The first one, Ha in a car chase type sequence during the first earthquake, shows they clearly don’t have it cracked and nothing else in the film is ever any better. You eventually just have to give it a pass on that type of action because at least the visuals are interesting. Ashfall’s an odyssey. Lots of different locations and settings. And it often looks great—Kim Ji-yong’s photography, whoever does the CGI; Ashfall’s a fine looking film.

Well, except when it looks like Kim’s got the “soap opera mode” turned on and the artifice shines bright, which happens more in the second half than the first. The first has the most successful visual sequences. The second half is when it needs to have the action sequences….

Unfortunately, the directors just aren’t very good at directing action scenes. It would help immensely.

The acting’s all fine or better. Ma and Jeon have the worst parts of the top-billed but still give the best performances. The material’s so weak. It’s a wonder what they do with it. Lee’s good enough I’m going to have to give him another chance, but he’s also a lot better than Ha, which isn’t what the movie needs.

It’s too long by twenty minutes, but Ashfall’s more than a good enough action-spy-disaster movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun; director of photography, Kim Ji-yong; music by Bang Joon-seok; production designer, Kim Byung-han; produced by Kang Myung-chan; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Lee Byung-hun (Lee Joon-Pyeong), Ha Jung-woo (Jo In-Chang), Jeon Hye-jin (Jeon Yoo-Kyung), Ma Dong-seok (Kang Bong-Rae), Suzy Bae (Choi Ji-Young), Michael Ray (General Michaels), Robert Curtis Brown (Ambassador Wilson), and Choi Kwang-il as the President.



Vampira and Me (2012, Ray Greene)

For its protracted 106 minute runtime, Vampira and Me is a combination of tragic, frustrating, annoying, and enthralling. The problem with the whole project is writer, producer, editor, director, and narrator Greene. Well, okay, the problem with any project about Vampira (Maila Nurmi) is the lack of extant footage of her television show, “The Vampira Show,” which ran in the mid-fifties. Nurmi was an immediate hit—the first glamour ghoul—but broadcasts were live and no recordings were made. Watching Me, there’s just enough remaining footage to show Nurmi as an excellent early television comedian, who kept up and outpaced her costars, and it’s an exceptional bummer the footage just isn’t here.

Much of Vampira and Me is an at least hour-long interview Nurmi recorded with Greene when he was working on another project. Greene, as narrator, says Me is going to be all about how Nurmi isn’t “just” Vampira, so the Vampira in the title is a little weird… ditto the Me, actually, because Greene barely has any anecdotes about his friendship with Nurmi. Except one where he emphases her emotional problems. It’s a weird choice. But Vampira and Me is full of weird choices, like Greene using a bunch of unrelated but contemporary footage because none exists of Nurmi. So you’re watching some commercial from the fifties and supposed to pretend it’s Nurmi or something. Plus he then goes on to add sound effects to actual recordings of Nurmi monologuing. And there are sound effects all the time.

It’s annoying. Like I said, frustrating, tragic, enthralling, annoying.

Nurmi herself—based on the filmed interview material—is a natural raconteur. She knew Orson Welles back in the day and you can imagine they’d have done great banter if given the opportunity. She was also good friends with James Dean during his meteoric rise, which gets a lot of coverage in the film but very little insight. Nurmi was into New Age woo and Greene’s not a good enough interviewer to get through that murky pool to actual insight. The biggest bummer of the film itself is the interview, which a better filmmaker could’ve incorporated into a far better project. The lack of other interviewees is a big problem.

But then there’s Greene’s narrative construction. He jumps ahead to the sixties at one point, then pulls back to the fifties. The timeline wouldn’t be muddled if Greene just did a better job presenting it. He also doesn’t get anything out of the jump ahead and fall back. It also contributes greatly to the slog of the second half.

Then there’s Greene “killing off” his subject; at the beginning of the film, he implies this rare, exclusive interview is going to be the emphasis and everything else will serve to annotate it. Nope. Greene doesn’t cover a lot of Nurmi’s rougher days—she spent almost fifty years in abject poverty, screwed out of continuing popularity because of a dispute with the TV station (they wanted to syndicate with other Vampiras in local markets, she apparently wanted to be Vmapira in all of them—not clear because Greene didn’t think to ask, apparently). He’s got some line about how she went on to a somewhat happy ending at the end and then doesn’t show it or talk about it… she just dies and it’s funeral footage, which is weird.

Also weird is the clips of a dancing fifties girl who looks a lot like Carolyn Jones, who played Morticia Addams on “The Addams Family” TV show. Nurmi got her idea for the Vampira costume from the Addams Family cartoon strip. She was trying to get noticed by producers to do an Addams Family adaptation, not “The Vampira Show.” And given the Elvira vs. Vampira stuff, which barely gets covered—and Greene at one point makes it sound like Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) was a reluctant nemesis… you’d think he’d clarify. Nope.

But then it turns out Greene’s not a very honest documentarian.

He implies Nurmi’s “Vampira” show was up against “I Love Lucy” in the 1955 Emmy’s when Nurmi was actually nominated for a local Emmy. What makes that deception so galling is the James Dean friendship, which was in contention for years because of a Hedda Hopper book and Nurmi had to fight to be believed. Documentation backs Nurmi up, but it took decades.

Greene’s got a great chance to look at fifties Hollywood and the ephemera of television–the first viral sensations—and he has a handful of good observations, they just don’t go anywhere. And they’re really early in the film.

It’s a testament to Nurmi as a storyteller and personality she’s able to surmount this wanting “homage” just in the single camera interview and a few surviving clips.

1/4

CREDITS

Written, directed, produced, and edited by Ray Greene; directors of photography, Larry Herbst, Sean Peacock, and Greene.


Solo (2018, Ron Howard)

Solo: A Star Wars Story is juvenile, which might be what manages to save it. It’s got nothing but problems—a troubled production (director Howard took over from fired “executive producers” Christopher Miller and Phil Lord and shot seventy-percent of what’s in the film), an uninspired screenplay (by Empire and Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and his son), the worst Star Wars music since A Day to Celebrate (“courtesy” John Powell), and a hilarious miscast “lead,” Alden Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich is playing young Han Solo, almost forty years after Harrison Ford originated the part and became a megastar. Howard never directed Ford in anything—they did fight over Shirley Feeney in 1962 Modesto—and maybe it would’ve helped if Howard had any experience with him. But the script is so talky—the Kasdans write Ehrenreich is a cocky jabberer (and I’m not sure they realize with juxtaposing him with whiny Mark Hamill from the original Star Wars is a bad idea)—and Ehrenreich so bland he can’t even figure out how to get his hair to do the acting for him, which means he couldn’t have worked in the seventies, it was never going to work. Solo tries to ignore itself instead of embrace itself and ends up rotting on the vine.

The only performance the film needs to have right and has right is, arguably, Donald Glover, who’s playing Billy Dee Williams playing Lando Calrissian. Glover doesn’t mimic Williams’s mannerisms, but the voice inflections are spot on. And Glover manages to have a sincere subplot. Not in the script, but in his performance.

Miscast or not, Ehrenreich shouldn’t be getting shown up as far as sincerity goes. Especially not after now bad girl ex-girlfriend Emilia Clarke tells Ehrenreich he’s secretly the good guy. If we’re finding out Solo is going to come back and save them at the Death Star, we need to see it. We don’t see it anywhere.

Though Solo’s particularly bad at showing things. Cinematographer Bradford Young is anti-contrast; everything looks a little muddy, a little muted. Whatever Young and Howard thought they were doing with the colored lighting doesn’t work either. Especially not when the movie starts pretending it’s Empire Strikes Back, which leads to some okay spaceship flying shots and some really bad attempts from composer Powell to integrate John Williams music for nostalgia’s sake.

But at least they’re trying something.

And the trying is what “saves” Solo; albeit conditionally.

The movie opens with thirty year-old teenagers Ehrenreich and Clarke growing up in a Star Wars version of Oliver Twist. When they finally get to escape, only Ehrenreich can make it. He’s going to come back for her, he promises.

Fast forward three years and Ehrenreich hooks up with Woody Harrelson’s intergalactic thief crew. It’s Harrelson, Thandie Newton, and Jon Favreau voicing the CGI action figure. Harrelson initially seems like he’s having fun and it’s not translating to a good performance. Then it seems like he’s not having fun and it’s still not translating to a good performance. Newton’s okay but she’s got the nagging girlfriend part–Solo goes out of its way to fail Bechdel and its “equality for droids” subplot is problematic and the slavery stuff is icky too. It’s not malicious, just exceptionally thoughtless.

Though, obviously, the whole thing is exceptionally thoughtless. It’s not like there’s some gem of a chase sequence or the big redeeming action set piece.

In not trying, however, Solo manages not to fail. Occasionally. There’s the broad fail of the concept, the broad fail of Ehrenreich, but Glover’s… captivating in his impression or performance or whatever. Clarke’s got a thin part written a piece of fortune cookie paper but she’s sympathetic.

Even if she apparently said no to Star Wars costumes and just wears a dress.

Paul Bettany’s villain isn’t… good but Bettany’s not sleeping through the performance. He’s not Harrelsoning it. And Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid activist really does seem to be there for a bunch of White men to laugh at civil rights, but Waller-Bridge’s great. And her comedy timing is better than anyone’s, though she presumably recorded the droid’s voice in post-production and didn’t have to suffer the set.

Solo is bland, long, boring—the first act is particularly dreadful, mostly because Ehrenreich’s so prominent and so disappointing—but it’s also not… predictable. The Kasdans’ script does make a lot of bad narrative decisions but they are decisions. And there are a lot of them. Event-based plotting might be the way I’d have described it as a teenager in an effort to justify liking it.

Plus there’s an Elder God.

Also… and I didn’t manage to work this anecdote in anywhere because I didn’t trend mean enough… Ron Howard? Bringing in the guy who infamously failed with Willow is a choice. Bringing in the guy who caped for Jake Lloyd’s performance in Phantom Menace is a choice.

And none of it even matters: Solo never had a chance. You might be able to recast Harrison Ford, but you can’t recreate Harrison Ford as Han Solo.

Though maybe they should’ve let Donald Glover try.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Bradford Young; edited by Pietro Scalia; music by John Powell; production designer, Neil Lamont; costume designers, David Crossman and Glyn Dillon; produced by Simon Emanuel, Kathleen Kennedy, and Allison Shearmur; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo), Emilia Clarke (Qi’ra), Woody Harrelson (Beckett), Donald Glover (Lando Calrissian), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Thandie Newton (Val), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (L3-37), Jon Favreau (Rio Durant), Linda Hunt (Lady Proxima), and Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos).


Ginger Snaps (2000, John Fawcett)

Ginger Snaps is almost there. Karen Walton’s script is almost there, Fawcett’s direction is almost there, Emily Perkins’s lead performance is almost there, Katharine Isabelle’s is… okay, it’s not almost there by the end, when Isabelle’s acting through latex makeup, but she’s good in the first act. Ginger Snaps coasts on the first act for quite a while.

It’s just a little long. The third act drags as Perkins and Isabelle go from points A to B to C as the movie tries to finally get to the ending. Ginger Snaps is a werewolf movie, with some of the tropes but not all of them. It rejects a few of them, embraces a few others. Isabelle is the werewolf-to-be, Perkins is the sister who tries to fix all the problems resulting from Isabelle’s lycanthropy, escalating from dead neighborhood dogs and scary nails to dead classmates and a tail growing out of Isabelle’s spine. Perkins and Isabelle never find a Maria Ouspenskaya; they’re on their own figuring out Ginger Snaps’s werewolf rules, with Perkins getting some neighborhood drug dealer Kris Lemche. See, after the werewolf bites Isabelle—on the night of her first period, which seems like it ought to be way more symbolic than it plays in the movie (like, seriously, read Swamp Thing #40)—it chases her and Perkins and Lemche hits it with his truck. Perkins and Isabelle don’t stick around to see Lemche discover he’d hit a some kind of Canis lupus… just one with a circumcised human penis, which does not get enough of a close-up when he finds it. I can’t actually remember if it’s even distinct in the shot.

But the period stuff isn’t the only place Walton’s script drops the proverbial subplot ball, the film also ditches—for all intents and purposes—the sisters’ suicide pact. Even though it’s never quite clear exactly how serious they are about it. The opening credits are all these images of Perkins and Isabelle dead from suicide in creative uses of suburban symbolism. Turns out it’s for a class assignment about living in their crappy suburb, which the first act also suggests is going to be more of a thing. Metaphors for suburban malaise. By the end of the movie, whenever there’s even a nod to the earlier material—like the suicide pact—it doesn’t play because Isabelle is literally inhuman (and eating people) and Perkins is past believing she can save her sister. There are a bunch of opportunities for the movie to have some pay-off with the subplots, never takes them. Not a one.

Especially not anti-helicopter parents Mimi Rogers and John Bourgeois. Rogers gets a whole arc about discovering her daughters’ are hiding a bigger secret than just Isabelle getting her first period and it goes absolutely nowhere. The clues Rogers keeps dropping suggesting she too might be a werewolf—the sisters get their periods late, apparently at sixteen—so Isabelle, while Perkins is a year younger, skipping a grade because smart–and if it’s a metaphor, well, there’d be some maternal connection. Right?

The movie’s a tad tedious, especially in the third act, but Perkins is a solid lead. Lemche would be a lot better with just a little bit better direction. Isabelle just needs a better arc. The movie gives her enough time to not just be “the beast” but then gives her nothing else to do but be the beast. Not counting her horny teen werewolf-to-be thing, which elevates Jesse Moss from background bro to supporting player. He’s not very good. Danielle Hampton’s an excellent mean girl.

It’d help if Mike Shields’s music were better or Thom Best’s photography. Brett Sullivan’s editing is all right. And the final werewolf isn’t groundbreaking or startling but it could be a lot worse.

Even when it’s not at its best, Ginger Snaps could be a whole lot worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Fawcett; screenplay by Karen Walton, based on a story by Fawcett and Walton; director of photography, Thom Best; edited by Brett Sullivan; music by Mike Shields; production designer, Todd Cherniawsky; costume designer, Lea Carlson; produced by Karen Lee Hall and Steven Hoban; released by Motion International.

Starring Emily Perkins (Brigitte), Katharine Isabelle (Ginger), Kris Lemche (Sam), Mimi Rogers (Pamela), Jesse Moss (Jason), Danielle Hampton (Trina), John Bourgeois (Henry), and Peter Keleghan (Mr. Wayne).