Palm Pictures

Six-String Samurai (1998, Lance Mungia)

Released in 1998, Six-String Samurai makes the big move of using a very familiar piece of music from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack (Misirlou, which is also the music on the Pulp Fiction trailer) during a big action sequence. It’s not a bold move, because Samurai hasn’t got any boldness. It even walks back being tough enough to kill kids, which turns out to be a major bummer later on; but it’s a big move. You lift from a popular movie you’re not directly referencing but you’re desperately hoping has gotten audiences ready to give your lesser effort a pass. I also wouldn’t call it a courageous move—director Mungia is awkwardly safe—but it’s not something you see every day. A movie “homaging” a four-year old film with a straight face. I mean, it works in spoofs… maybe they were hoping it’d go far for them in Samurai, which isn’t a spoof but has the ingredients to be one.

While the plotting is sort of good—Samurai isn’t (but always seems like) an adaptation of a wacky but good indie comic from the late eighties or early nineties—samurai rock and rollers, all sorts of different gangs—cavemen, a bowling team, musical guests the Red Elvises, a heavy metal death gang, some Soviets—a post-apocalyptic setting. Maybe British, commenting on the U.S. but not well, instead just going for whatever works in the moment. Mungia and lead Jeffrey Falcon wrote the script, which is mercenary for its occasional laughs; if it were a Muppet movie, it’d be amazing, which is kind of hard to explain but also not. If Six-String Samurai were a bunch of Muppets and a human kid, it’d be amazing. The dialogue’s for a Muppet movie. When the death metal gang starts talking to each other like it’s “Fraggle Rock,” you can see the missed opportunity.

But until the end, it seems like Samurai might make it to the finish line. Only it doesn’t, because it’s got a bad ending where it turns out Mungia isn’t just nodding to… get ready… Kurosawa, Leone, Coen, Tarantino, Rodriguez, Lucas (as in George), he’s also got a whole Wizard of Oz thing he wants to throw in for momentary effect. Again, not ornate or committed enough to be desperate, but pointless. Mungia’s desperate to homage.

So it’s kind of weird how well he directs about forty percent of the action scenes. While Mungia doesn’t make a good kung fu movie or a good Western, he does make one hell of a samurai epic. When Falcon’s out there slicing and dicing, it’s some great samurai cinema. Shame Mungia can’t shoot a sword duel, but it’s only one of so many shames. Some of the problem with the action is James Frisa’s editing. It’s one of those cases where Mungia does things wrong, Frisa does things wrong, then they enable each other on other things gone wrong. Samurai does a lot with slow motion to cover Mungia not actually being able to direct the action and it gets really tiresome. Compounding it… Frisa’s editing isn’t good. It’s a vicious circle and usually keeps Samurai from accomplishing anything. Save those samurai action scenes—and just the action parts, not the setup or wrap-up. Mungia fumbles those parts like normal.

Kristian Bernier’s photography is good throughout. Lots of wind in the film in the first, which works to great effect. Unfortunately, as the gale mellows, lead Falcon—playing Lone Wolf—accepts Cub Justin McGuire.

Though—and it’s weird because it came out before–Samurai has a much better story for Star Wars: Episode I than Star Wars: Episode I has for itself.

Anyway.

The problem with Samurai and what ultimately does it in is McGuire. It’s very hard to cast a good kid lead in an adventure movie for all ages, it’s harder to cast one for an R-rated action movie… there’s no shame in not getting it right. Sadly, Mungia and company get it not just a little wrong, they get it astoundingly, increasingly wrong. Though if they were really making the movie and thinking it was fine—which seems to make sense, given how not good Falcon’s line deliveries get (and appear dubbed much of the time—his stunts are great, he was a stuntman)–but to not see what McGuire’s doing to your movie….

It’s like having an adorable little puppy who’s so annoying you want to kick it.

But there is an odd sincerity to the McGuire character, the young orphan who needs protecting and ronin Falcon’s the only one available–but it’s still bad and it’s not a cloying addition. It’s the film’s biggest swing and the resulting miss is what breaks Samurai’s last string.

Maybe if Falcon were a great lead but he’s not even a good one. Samurai is impressive for its creators’ tenacity and ability to get investors, Falcon’s physical movement, the samurai action, and the photography. The rest… nope.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lance Mungia; written by Jeffrey Falcon and Mungia; music by The Red Elvises and Brian Tyler; director of photography, Kristian Bernier; edited by James Frisa; production and costume designer, Falcon; produced by Leanna Creel; released by Palm Pictures.

Starring Jeffrey Falcon (Buddy), Justin McGuire (The Kid), Stephane Gauger (Death), Clifford Hugo (Psycho), and Kim De Angelo (Mother).


Clean (2004, Olivier Assayas)

Clean answers a number of burning questions. Burning to someone, just not me.

  1. Olivier Assayas is an excellent director.
  2. Olivier Assayas is a terrible writer.
  3. Maggie Cheung cannot act in English.
  4. Maggie Cheung cannot sing in English.
  5. Nick Nolte can survive anything.

I was surprised by numbers 1 and 3. Not so much by the rest.

After creating such a beautiful visual experience, you’d think Assayas would know something about directing actors. He does not. His direction, specifically, of the little kid in the film is astounding. It’s the worst performance of a child actor I’ve witnessed as a reasoning human being. Watching the film, you can see the kid getting direction like: be precocious. It’s awful.

I’ve seen another Assayas film, also starring Cheung (his wife), Irma Vep, but she doesn’t speak English in that one. Assayas seems obsessed with the idea of his wife in a lesbian relationship, introducing the possibility in both these films, but never following through. It’s peculiar, nothing else, and the relationship’s introduced in this film as another of its tangents.

Clean runs about 110 minutes and is filled with needless fade outs (read my recent review of Olga’s Chignon for how transitions ought to be done) and these title cards, telling us the location and the time past. There’s actually one that says “London. A few days later.” Like we couldn’t figure it out.

As a film about someone overcoming drug addiction, Clean is probably the worst. Comparing it to the standards, Clean and Sober and Trainspotting, it’s so ineffective, the drug addiction aspect could be removed and replaced by something and it wouldn’t change a thing. The lead is not a flake because she’s a drug addict. She’s a flake because she’s a flake. The drugs are wholly incidental–my favorite scene, actually, is when she explains why people need to do drugs to her five-year old son.

Cheung actually won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this film and… well, it makes me wonder. What the kind of drugs do the voters at Cannes get? I want some.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Olivier Assayas; director of photography, Éric Gautier; edited by Luc Barnier; produced by Édouard Weil, Xavier Giannoli, Xavier Marchand and Niv Fichman; released by Palm Pictures.

Starring Maggie Cheung (Emily Wang), Nick Nolte (Albrecht Hauser), James Dennis (Jay), Béatrice Dalle (Elena), Jeanne Balibar (Irène Paolini), Don McKellar (Vernon) and Martha Henry (Rosemary Hauser).


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