SIFF Roundup: “Extraterrestrial”, “John Dies at the End”

Poster for "Extraterrestrial"
It appears I can cross “alien invasion sex comedy” off my dwindling list of unseen genre mashups. This is the latest small-budget feature from Nacho Vigalondo, the Spanish writer/director behind the tense and violent 2007 sci-fi thriller Timecrimes – another brilliant film that otherwise has so little in common with the director’s sophomore effort that the connection seems scarcely worth mentioning. While Los Cronocrimenes was driven by a taut and carefully scripted sci-fi plotline, Extraterrestre merely uses the backdrop of an alien invasion to frame a sexy rom-com.

Julio (Julián Villagrán) wakes up in the apartment and bed of Julia (Michelle Jenner), following an awkward one-night stand only made more so by the fact that neither of the two can remember anything about the night before – including, indeed, whether or not they even had sex. This question becomes a bit more important when a pair of interested parties arrive – Ángel (Carlos Areces), a nosy neighbor with a serious crush on Julia, and Carlos (Raúl Cimas), her long-distance boyfriend. With the streets of Madrid empty and the downtown core beneath a mile-wide alien spaceship, this essentially becomes a locked-room romantic comedy. Julio and Julia explore their newfound, philandering chemistry, Ángel deftly demonstrates why he can’t get the girl, and Carlos, a steadfast survivalist, obliviously plans the group’s next move.

Don’t get me wrong, these characters sound a bit cookie-cutter, but the entire first act of this film is brilliantly written. The film fits right into that nice Zombieland niche in which ordinary characters are tossed together amusingly amid extraordinary circumstances. Sure, the world might be coming to an end, but can’t we still engage in petty bickering over who f’d whom? All of the cuckolding drama is a bit celebratory of bad behavior, but the plot maintains just the right tone of naughty fun to avoid feeling too mean-spirited. Even with a merciless love-quadrangle, the film has an impressive amount of heart, and makes you genuinely care about each of the four characters at least some of the time.

The problem is, these characters get kicked out of the film one by one. We definitely needed time for the core romance – if that is what it is – to grow, but at least one of the rival characters had to get short shrift, and it really wasn’t the one I expected. One of them veers just a bit too much off the rails in the third act, and it isn’t the guy with the tennis ball launcher. While this bit of screwball comedy was still entertaining, it does feel just a bit like the film is turning on its characters as they begin to strain likeability even further.

Fortunately, Extraterrestrial manages to stick the landing. The ending is sweet and seems tonally appropriate, concluding with a gorgeous sunset shot that just about perfectly sums up the film. Save the interstellar warfare for the Americans…we’re just here to hang out in Madrid.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5/10
Extraterrestrial will be playing a couple more times at SIFF, and staying for at least a weeklong Seattle run at SIFF Cinema when the festival concludes. If you’re interested in seeing the film in your town, you can also “demand it” by visiting this link.

Poster for "John Dies At the End"

John Dies at the End is pure, unadulterated insanity. I saw it at midnight under the influence of 9 hours of road-trip driving, a shot of Jägermeister, a glass of hefeweizen, and a 12-oz can of Red Bull (in that order), which might just comprise an ideal viewing experience. The film features the bizarre, drug-fueled, stream-of-consciousness journey of David Wong (Chase Williamson) and John Cheese (Rob Mayes), a pair of bros who dabble in paranormal investigation. Their recent discovery is a drug called “soy sauce”, which, when injected, enables the user to see into other places, times, dimensions, etc.

The drug is basically whatever the plot needs it to be from moment to moment, operating variably as a means of clairvoyance, precognition, telekinesis, and so on. But really, that’s fine. The drug is no different in principle than demonic possession, alien invasion, or any number of other paranormal plot devices. What keeps this movie stampeding along is not plot convention but an immense sense of kinetic fun and a commitment to remain at least semi-coherent. Don Coscarelli‘s strong low-budget visuals (which he previously demonstrated in Bubba Ho-Tep) are out in full force here. Even the most ridiculous practical effects and creatures manage to strike a nice balance between laughable and menacing. The film felt almost like an R-rated take on Ghostbusters, with the main duo seemingly quite knowledgeable about all things paranormal, despite the insane, bumbling adventure on which they must embark.

The film utilizes a number of clever devices, including phone calls displaced in time, demons who appear as different people depending on who’s looking, and even a clever reference to the Grandfather’s Axe paradox. There was seemingly a great deal of care and intelligence that went into this psychotic romp. It feels like a meticulously constructed doll, woven by a maniac into a tattered conglomeration of twigs and human hair, which he brushes lovingly every night before he goes to bed. Perhaps he calls it Sheila. Or Brutus. And then one night, he decides to use it as a quill with which to pen his manifesto on the padded walls of his suburban living room, using an ink composed principly of his own urine.

I’m pretty sure that’s an accurate summation.

FilmWonk rating: 7-ish out of 10

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #22 – “Safety Not Guaranteed” (dir. Colin Trevorrow), “The Imposter” (dir. Bart Layton) (SIFF)

Poster for "Safety Not Guaranteed"

As SIFF continues, Glenn and Daniel check out the highly anticipated time travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, which comes home to Seattle along with much of its cast and crew. Then they jump out of their seats and run to the next auditorium to pose as film critics in a packed screening of Bart Layton‘s utterly fascinating documentary/thriller, The Imposter.

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Safety Not Guaranteed): 6/10
FilmWonk rating (The Imposter): 9/10

Show notes:

  • (00:00) Review: Safety Not Guaranteed
  • (06:45) Spoilers: Safety Not Guaranteed (although we somewhat spoil the Jake Johnson subplot starting at 05:38)
  • (13:22) Review: The Imposter
  • (19:56) Spoilers: The Imposter
  • Correction: I mistakenly refer to Colin Trevorrow as a first-time director. In fact, he has a few prior credits, including this amusing short from 2002.
  • For some reason, there’s a vague spoiler for the 7th season finale of House (at 08:12). Thanks for that, Daniel.
  • But later, Daniel redeems himself by mentioning the Ninja Kitty video, which is definitely worth watching.
  • Nerd quibble: Aragorn decapitated an Uruk-hai, not a Nazgul.
  • Unfortunately, there was no trailer available for The Imposter, so we included a brief clip from the SXSW interview with director Bart Layton, available in its entirety here.
  • We refer to the Taylor University van crash case, in which a college student named Whitney Cerak was misidentified as another student who died (even mistaken by the victim’s family).
  • I was referring to this guy in this movie. Kudos to anyone who got this utterly pointless reference.

Listen above, or download: Safety Not Guaranteed/The Imposter (right-click, save as).

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #21 – “Compliance” (dir. Craig Zobel) (SIFF)

Still from "Compliance"

As the Seattle International Film Festival continues, Glenn and Daniel give a quick review of a harrowing drama from the co-founder of…Homestar Runner? Okay! A warning for the spoiler-averse… As this is based on true events (and sticks largely to the real-life story), we aren’t shy about spoilers, but we do give a warning before revealing the film’s ending.

Contains NSFW language and some disturbing content.

FilmWonk rating: 7/10 (Glenn), 8/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • Once again – due to to the quick turnaround for SIFF content, this podcast was recorded without our usual setup – but the audio quality is solid! I have it on good authority that a modern automobile makes an excellent recording booth.
  • More info on Stanley Milgram’s experiment.

Listen above, or download: Compliance (right-click, save as).

SIFF Roundup: “Only Yesterday”, “Fat Kid Rules The World”

Poster for "Only Yesterday"
Written and directed by Isao Takahata

Studio Ghibli’s 1991 film Only Yesterday, from writer/director Isao Takahata and producer Hiyao Miyazaki, was a theatrical hit in Japan, but has not made it to US theatrical or home release. And after seeing it, I certainly have a guess why. This quiet, reflective film about childhood is conceived through the narrative lens and perspective of an adult woman, Taeko (voiced by Miki Imai), looking back upon her years in primary school. It is not precisely a film for adults or a film for children, and as such must be incredibly difficult to market.

Like every Ghibli film, the hand-drawn animation is simply gorgeous. There is a magnificent array of emotion visible on the children’s faces – when the young Taeko (voiced by Youko Honna) gives you the stink-eye, you’ll know it. Likewise, when she’s trying desperately to affect enjoyment while eating an unripe (but expensive) pineapple, you’ll know it. The resulting “performances” would be breathtaking coming from child actors, and are masterful works of art here. There is also a clever animated framing device wherein the adult Taeko imagines her childhood self and classmates literally following her around as she heads out to the countryside for a bit of agro-tourism. This leads to a heartbreakingly beautiful moment at the film’s end in which she is forced to make an important choice.

Unfortunately, the only weak link is the adult Taeko. Apart from her recent breakup and monotonous office job, we never really get to know her beyond her obsessive navel-gazing. So her dilemma about how to continue her relatively aimless life does not resonate nearly as well as it could if we had a better idea of how this vivacious 10-year-old became the woman that we see before us.

While the Japanese countryside is rendered with staggering beauty (even the reflections in pothole puddles are gorgeous), this narrative gulf between the two versions of Taeko is enough to hold back the “present day” (1980s) material from being nearly as interesting as it is pretty. Conversely, the childhood (1960s) sequences are exciting and rife with nostalgia (watch for an appearance by the Beatles singing in Japanese*!). The soundtrack is marvelous and expansive, ranging from classical tunes (including one of my favorites, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance) to more contemporaneous selections, including a lovely Japanese rendition of Bette Midler’s “The Rose“, which is put to great use.

Despite its shortcomings, Only Yesterday is an earnest and heartfelt character piece, well worth seeing if you can find it in the US (apparently it’s available on Region 2 DVD on Amazon).

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

* CORRECTION: Upon further research, I was unable to find any record of The Beatles actually performing in Japanese, (although there seem to be a fair number of Japanese Beatles cover bands!). The Beatles are mentioned by name during this montage, but the song appears to be “Omoide No Nagisa“, a 1966 song by The Wild Ones (source).

Poster for "Fat Kid Rules The World"
Directed by Matthew Lillard
Written by Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman, based on the novel by K.L. Going

I’ve rolled my eyes on multiple occasions while reading the end-of-year Top 10 lists from various NYC and Chicago critics, as they invariably include one locally shot gem that thoroughly sums up the ineffable experience of living in their precious city. I never wanted to be that guy. And yet, director Matthew Lillard has forced my hand with an adaptation that is so quintessentially Seattle in its depiction of lovable losers and their various musical hopes and dreams, it would be against my very nature to dislike it.

Troy Billings (Jacob Wysocki) is an overwei- well, a fat kid – who decides to end it all by stepping in front of a downtown bus. He gets shoved out of the way at the last second by Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a strung-out, hyperactive kid who may or may not attend Troy’s school, and who immediately demands $20 in exchange for his lifesaving act. Wysocki’s performance is nicely understated, and the character is written with a deft understanding of being an adolescent outcast. But the real scene-stealer is O’Leary, whose performance strikes just the right blend of instability, delusion, and charisma. Marcus is, to all outward appearances, a homeless, unreliable, loser drug addict. For all of his promises about upcoming shows at Neumos – a fairly prestigious real-life Seattle venue just three blocks from the theater in which I saw this film – all of his grand plans to form a punk band with Troy seem like nothing but self-serving fantasy.

And yet, despite Troy’s credible degree of self-awareness about the situation, he is still swept up in the power and dangerous allure of the music world. The film has a darkly comedic streak throughout, but I would largely call it a drama, especially due to the treatment of Troy’s father, whom we know only as Mr. Billings (Billy Campbell). Campbell (whom I’ll admit I mistook for Ray Liotta in his first scene) gives an outstanding performance as Troy’s father, an ex-Marine and widower. Mr. Billings is a complicated hardass, to put it mildly. He loves his boys and misses his wife, and he’s deeply worried about his son’s choice of friends. And yet, he seems committed to doing the right thing, even if that means potentially taking on Marcus as the undeniable burden that he will be. I can’t overstate how refreshing I find this character and performance. I’ve seen such a staggering number of boring, one-note hardass fathers on film over the years (hell, Fred Ward has made a career out of playing them!). To see such a fresh and credible take on the character strikes me as nothing short of miraculous.

Fat Kid is a marvelous study in contradictions. It exemplifies the lonely and depressing experience of being an adolescent outsider, and yet feels incredibly empowering and uplifting by the end. It celebrates the complex notion of doing right by the people in our lives, even if they seem almost certain to disappoint us. As a musical coming-of-age film, it makes a nice pairing with Almost Famous.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #20 – ‘The Avengers’ (dir. Joss Whedon) (bonus spoiler episode)

Poster for "The Avengers"

This podcast contains spoilers for The Avengers and The Dark Knight. This week on the podcast, Glenn, Daniel, and special guest Sarah get together for a spoilery second look at Marvel’s The Avengers. While Glenn still stands by his 8/10 review, Daniel has other opinions, and if there’s one thing we love at the FilmWonk Podcast, it’s sowing discord. Find out if these three heroes can unite and save the cinematic world below!

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • This episode was meant as a quick one-off, so it will unfortunately be a bit less polished than our usual episodes. Although my phone has a surprisingly good microphone!
  • Correction: A dutiful listener has pointed out that one of my supposed “continuity errors” is flat-out wrong. Stark and Banner get into the convertible, while Rogers takes off on the motorcycle. Mea culpa! Chalk it up to identical wardrobes and viewer fatigue.

Listen above, or download: The Avengers (right-click, save as).

Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” – Big damn heroes

Note: There was dissent in the house of FilmWonk about this film! Be sure to check out our spoiler-edition podcast on The Avengers after you see the film.

As Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) addresses his fellow Avengers in the last act of this film, he makes the rather staggering leap in logic that their nemesis Loki (Tom Hiddleston) will surely go to New York City to fire the opening salvo of his war on mankind. Stark’s only evidence? NYC is where self-important people go to show off. While the non-New-Yorker in me couldn’t help but chuckle, this sloppy bit of plotting (and my instant acceptance thereof) did raise an interesting question. How much of my desire to follow these characters into whatever adventure and peril awaits them can be properly attributed to this film? This is the potential problem with any sequel – a dilemma that is compounded in a franchise like The Avengers, in which some of the characters were introduced in films that were at best mediocre, and in one case, starred a completely different actor. But while “The Avengers” might not have entirely succeeded as a franchise, Joss Whedon‘s rousing and epic take on the final film* has completely validated Marvel’s endeavor.

The gang’s all here, and both Whedon and his actors know exactly who they want them to be. There’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth), verbose and bombastic demigod who feels the weight of every moment – with a soft spot for humanity and for his villainous adoptive brother Loki. There’s Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), steadfast and reliable soldier – first out the door into a fight, and a natural leader. There’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), boss of the Avengers – chaotic, manipulative bastard beyond reproach, working at all times for the greater good.

And then there’s the other guy. Mark Ruffalo joins the Avengers as Bruce Banner, better known as the Incredible Hulk. If there’s one thing the last two Hulk films taught me, it’s that there’s a lot of potential goofiness involved with a character that explodes into a huge green uncontrollable rage-monster. And yet, everyone in The Avengers treats Banner with deadly seriousness, most of all Ruffalo himself. Even with his limited screentime, Ruffalo manages to deftly convey just what a self-hating, tortured soul this man is. Because the movie never treats the Hulk as anything less than an imminent, mortal threat, there is a palpable sense of danger surrounding him at all times. All of the fantastic tension in the early scenes between Banner and the Avengers is character-based – they fear the unpredictable man who stands between them and the beast. And surprisingly, it is between Banner and Stark that the film first starts to draw some fascinating parallels. Both Banner’s Hulk and Stark’s Iron Man are grappling with potentially lethal forces that threaten to tear them apart from the inside out. While Stark is far more ready to crack a joke about his situation, they feel credibly like the only two people in the world who can truly understand each other’s lot.

Stark has the most screen time – this is surely because both Iron Man and Robert Downey, Jr. are collectively the biggest star in the bunch, but it also marks a wise decision on Whedon’s part to use Stark as the film’s no-bullshit sounding board. Stark is a brilliant, abrasive, narcissistic billionaire, and seems exceptionally well-suited to the job of bringing subtext to the surface in a short period of time. In each of their scenes with Stark, more of each Avenger is revealed, and Downey’s performance here is as strong as it has ever been.

And what to make of the villainous Loki? He is the same whiny, entitled, beggar-king that be became in Thor, ranting constantly about his birthright and nobility and dispatching his enemies with unrelenting viciousness. Loki is less of a master of chaos than he pretends to be, but Hiddleston’s performance brought just about the right level of malevolence and false bravado to the role. Full-on villainy seems like a natural extension of his antiheroic beginnings in Thor – a film which I suspect, despite my cheap shot above, might actually be slightly better when viewed through the lens of what’s to come**.

And what’s to come is pretty obvious… All hell breaks loose in the Big Apple, per usual, but for once the city’s defenders seem immediately equal to the task at hand. This is partially because of just how powerful the Avengers are collectively, but it’s also because the invading “Chitauri” never quite feel like a world-ending threat. The army – a collection of District 9 rejects, Uruk-hai, and giant flying tortoises – wasn’t half as interesting as the heroes fighting it. But the scale, cinematography, and big, colorful superhero badassery of it all brought a huge grin to my face nonetheless. If there’s one thing I remember from Joss Whedon’s last film Serenity, it’s that the man can direct the hell out of an full-tilt battle sequence, balancing intimacy, scale, and devastation with near-perfection. A series of tracking shots take us on a breathtaking tour of the battlescape, as we see each of the Avengers brawling with their own impressive signatures. Despite the rather rote setup of the battle and its resolution, the stakes were undeniable, both for the heroes personally and for the city they protect***.

The Avengers is an unrelenting delight with a smart script and a rousing musical score (by Captain America composer Alan Silvestri). But the highest praise I can give this film is that even the most groan-worthy bits of fan-service were well-placed and served the plot in some concrete fashion. Did Thor really need to bang his hammer into Captain America’s shield? Of course not. But I’m glad I got to see it.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

* I say “final film” more in the sense of a climax, not out of any naive belief that Marvel won’t milk this franchise until it dies. After a $207 million opening weekend, there’s little doubt that there will be an Avengers 2.

** All things considered, Jane Foster is still a useless character, and I was pleased to only see Natalie Portman’s face in this film as a means of assuring us that she would not make another wasted appearance.

*** SPOILERY OBSERVATION (highlight to view):
While the nuke felt a little perfunctory, Stark’s sudden rush to self-sacrifice was profoundly affecting. Downey, Jr completely sold his transformation over the course of this film (particularly after Coulson’s death), and the film actually managed to make me forget, for a few seconds, that there’s no way that Marvel would let Joss Whedon exercise his penchant for character-slaughter on their biggest star. It was a lovely moment nonetheless, and one that this film completely earned.
END OF SPOILER

Zal Batmanglij’s “Sound of My Voice” – A subdued, but effective thriller

Poster for "Sound of My Voice"

Brit Marling may be one of my favorite voices in indie sci-fi, and I say that even as someone who was not a fan of her well-intentioned flop Another Earth. Marling’s performance was very nearly the saving grace of that film, and is surely one of the best reasons to see her latest outing (with director Zal Batmanglij), Sound of My Voice. Marling plays a secluded cult leader, Maggie, who claims to be a time traveler from the year 2054. Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius) are a couple working tirelessly to infiltrate the cult, hoping to use hidden cameras to capture Maggie’s persona on film, and expose her for the fraud that she surely must be.

“I’m not petty,” Maggie says in one scene, “I don’t really care if people believe me.” Marling plays the charismatic cult leader as a master manipulator – exuding vulnerability and menace in equal measure. Bits of sincere, self-aware dialogue seem perfectly crafted to reinforce her story. In fact, the film uses Maggie’s story effectively as a subtle framework to explain the cult mentality. There is a dark, secret future, she explains, and only a select few will survive it. You’re special. You must be, or you wouldn’t believe my story. You wouldn’t have passed all of our little tests. You wouldn’t be committed to our group forever. The group’s trust in Maggie’s Terminator-ish future fable acts as a kind of glue to bind them all together. Many details, such as that Maggie grows all of her own food because she’s allergic to all of the toxins in our time period, would work as effectively for a plain old vegan commune as a futurist cult – and yet they add to her credibility without requiring her to produce a shred of actual evidence. These mythological elements are bolstered further by a series of elaborate security rituals – the cult members strip naked and scrub themselves off before being transported blind to the meeting place, and are not admitted until they perform a complex “secret handshake”.

Still from "Sound of My Voice"

In addition to this well-established group dynamic, the film functions brilliantly as a paranoid thriller. Denham’s performance is impressive, increasing the tense atmosphere in the room with the slightest glance or twinge of the eye, and what’s more, Peter is a particularly well-drawn character. Many films would set up documentary filmmakers without any thought to their [presumably noble] inner lives – this film made some bold choices, and they pay off nicely as Peter is forced to blend truth and lies in order to maintain his cover. While his backstory is established by way of a rather clunky voice-over at the beginning, it still functions as convincing reasoning for why he is so desperate to expose Maggie.

The film doesn’t live or die on the veracity of Maggie’s story (which by its very nature cannot be proven conclusively), but rather on whether or not this well-intentioned couple will be exposed. And unfortunately, the weak link in that chain is Lorna. This is due in part to Nicole Vicius’ performance, which isn’t stellar – but it is also due to the writing of the character. The film reveals (using the same clunky voiceover method) that Lorna was a teen party girl, trying every kind of drug and burning out before she reached college-age. Which is a fine backstory, but it may as well have been absent, for all it matters as the film goes on. Lorna’s reason for participating in this deception is never established beyond the couple’s relationship, and while the two actors have decent romantic chemistry, it is Denham who completely carries the tense scenes in which the couple debates their next move. As the film goes on, Vicius is sidelined and forced to take on the boring role of the jealous girlfriend, competing ineffectually with Denham and Marling’s far more interesting dynamic.

Much of the film’s ending seems contingent on the various bits of weirdness that get introduced over the course of it. A creepy dude named Klaus (Richard Wharton) hangs around the whole time, and may or may not be the real power behind the group. An unidentified woman crawls around her hotel room searching for bugs. A little girl stacks black Legos in her room (while her dad does…something…with his laptop). This ending worked for me in much the same way as Richard Kelly’s 2001 film Donnie Darko, wherein all of those strange moments seemed deliberate rather than haphazard. When so many films are rightfully accused of “weirdness for weirdness’ sake”, it’s refreshing to see a film that can be weird in a way that feels bold and calculated. Even the last audible line of the film adds to the mystery.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10