Monday, September 10, 2007

Toronto International Film Festival Journal - Part Five


It’s a good thing that George Romero does that John Carpenter thing of putting his name before the title of his films. In the case of DIARY OF THE DEAD, it may be necessary as the title doesn’t show up until the end of the film. Otherwise, innocent viewers may be mistaken that the dreck they’re seeing was produced by some twentysomething punks rather than a deluded, seasoned master.

The conceit of the film is that it’s actually a cinema verite documentary, DEATH OF DEATH, by student filmmaker Jason Creed (Joshua Close), his band of friends, and his soused professor. The “handheld camerawork” device fails miserably as we’re never privy to the team of gaffers that run ahead of our intrepid heroes to light everything (flatly) before they arrive. Also, the “handheld shots” are obviously steadicam. I’m sorry to geek out about this but Romero never lets up on the “you’re watching people tape this” aspect, causing me to see all of the ways in which it wasn’t. In other words, it’s not BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, BLOOD OF THE BEAST, or Zack Snyder’s remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD.

With the camcorder, Winnebago travel, and insistence that “dead things don’t run,” it appears that DIARY OF THE DEAD is Romero’s commentary on Snyder’s reworking of his film. Unfortunately, Romero only succeeded at making me long for the verve and gallows humour of Snyder’s film instead. The jokes of DIARY OF THE DEAD induce more groans than a legion of zombies. Meanwhile, the thrills never managed to get me anywhere near the edge of my seat. Worse yet, the obligatory Romero social commentary is handled ham-handedly via voiceovers from the vociferous Bree (Michelle Morgan looking very Eliza Dushku-esque) and occasional montages of re-appropriated news footage. These sequences put the brakes on the already plodding story. To be fair, the story moves just like a Romero zombie; it shambles along.

The only bit that provided some good laughs and thrills came from the all too brief appearance of a deaf Amish man. Sadly, this segment felt like it came from another, less self-important film.

SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (Takashi Miike, 2007, Japan)

The line between Japanese samurai films and Italian Westerns (called “spaghetti” in the West and “macaroni” in the East) has been blurry from the days of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone. The widescreen expanses of 19th Century lawlessness was a cinematic language easily translated between chambara and Euro oaters.

Prolific filmmaker Takashi Miike forgoes the pasta and dubs his dabbling in the horse opera a “sukiyaki” western. This Japanese stew-like metaphor is appropriate as Miike throws in a great number of influences and references into his dish. What cooks up may bear the name “Django” (and he introduces a coffin hiding a machine gun midway through the film) but it owes more to Kurosawa than Corbucci in its acknowledged inspiration from YOJIMBO. The unnamed black clad antihero rides into a previously thriving town to find it a wretched hive of scum and villainy; occupied by a handful of citizens and two warring clans, the Genji and Heike.

Clad in red and white, Miike injects some heavy duty rose overtones into the film, calling out the War of the Roses, Henry VI, and a hybrid rose bush named “love” quite frequently. At least two of the film’s characters are products of Genji (red) and Heike (white) love affairs.

Even with a wealth of past ideas to pilfer, SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO can’t sustain itself for its full two hour running time. Things slow down about an hour into the proceedings. In order to inject some life into the faltering action, Miike breaks into the cartoon sound effects library and attempts to make SWD a life action anime film. These instances feel completely out of place, even after the highly stylized pre-credit sequence starring living cartoon character Quentin Tarantino.

It’s strange with actors speaking English as a second language (for the most part) and who muddle through some tricky pronunciations (thank goodness for the English subtitles) that the worst performance of the film comes courtesy of a native English speaker. Quentin Tarantino seems to be doing some kind of Western drawl crossed with a fluctuating German accept as if channeling a drunk Klaus Kinski through a faulty connection. Tarantino’s embarrassing “acting” may be brief but every second he spends on screen is excruciating.

Sure to be a hit with every hipster who has never seen an Asian in a cowboy hat (allow me to recommend TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER and THE NEW MORNING OF BILLY THE KID), SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO could do with some tightening up and a complete Tarantino-echtomy.

The trailer for the film really shows you all you need to see.

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