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Wednesday
Jul012015

Terminator Genisys (2015)

No Money But What We Make

A few weeks ago, writer/director James Cameron said this after catching an early screening of Terminator Genisys, the fourth sequel to his massively influential 1984 film, The Terminator:

“I feel like the franchise has been reinvigorated, like this is a renaissance. You look at why the films became classics. They had characters that you like. In the new film—which, in my mind, I think of as the third film—we see Arnold [Schwarzenegger] take the character even farther…It’s pretty cool because you’ve got to riff against expectations. It’s all about the twist.”

Like the human-hunting cyborg Schwarzenegger made famous, a display of three possible reactions popped into my brain:

  1. James Cameron has lost his mind.
  2. James Cameron knows what he's talking about, and everyone is in for a smart, surprising thrill ride.
  3. Paramount Pictures paid James Cameron ungodly amounts of money to alleviate the stink of their hollow, horribly marketed summer blockbuster.

Sorry if this is surprises anyone, but we can safely rule out option two. Terminator Genisys is as confused, desperate, and pointless as the trailers and posters make it out to be. Director Alan Taylor and writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier buzz by all the franchise signposts but, like Jurassic World, neglect to imbue their chapter with any of the heart, originality, and awe that made this series even possible. It’s an amusement, a distraction, a branded shiny object that is to the art of cinema what Six Flags’ Batman: The Ride is to The Dark Knight.

Sadly, that’s all many audiences expect from summer entertainment nowadays. As long as the latest iteration of this week's comic-book movie, sequel or reboot is unquantifiably “better than the last one”, and as long as it lures some portion of each major theatre-going demographic out to the multiplex opening weekend, we are to adore and reward these effects spectacles--simply for being expensive and packing lots of star power. Look no further than Schwarzenegger’s T-800 character devolving from a ruthless, practically silent killing machine into joke-prone CGI-puppet reference, whom his former target, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), now affectionately refers to as “Pop”.

In this reality, Sarah was raised by a reprogrammed T-800, following her parents’ assassination in the early 70s by an evil, liquid-metal T-1000. He trains her to survive the nuclear apocalypse brought on by a self-aware defense network, as well as attacks from various terminators the computer sends back from the future to finish the job. Meanwhile, in the future (you still there?), Sarah’s son, John (Jason Clarke), sends BFF Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to save Sarah from the “original” terminator and mate with Sarah to become his father—because everyone thinks the events from the first film are the definitive version of history. Thanks to all the Terminator series' mucking around with timelines, though, there's no longer a starting point that makes sense.

And I haven’t even touched on the mind-controlling super-terminators, the doomsday app, or the resurrection of Star Trek V and Resident Evil as viable reservoirs for the reboot well. Nor am I going to, since that’s still only a third of the “business” the filmmakers have stuffed into this thing.

Yes, if you thought the last two Terminator movies were poorly thought out exercises in time-flipping fan fiction, Genisys overheats the motherboard to positively nuclear results. Characters leap from era to era to era, using time machines both ultra-sophisticated and homemade, and incorporate memories from alternate-universe versions of themselves into blueprints for attacks in disparate timelines. Got all that? Neither do the writers—but it gives the lead actors lots to talk about while they’re busy not establishing chemistry.

In fairness, Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney have been saddled with the thankless job of replicating the tragic, magnetic energy of their roles’ original actors (Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn), while muscling through a lousy screenplay. I could feel Clarke working especially hard to get Hamilton’s iconic glare and orders-barking intimidation down. But instead of being her own self-assured, ass-kicking woman, she seems constantly on the verge of threatening to call her older sister for help.

Courtney is just a non-entity here. He’s too pretty, too clean, and too wide-eyed to buy as a battle-hardened future warrior. The mysterious thug from Jack Reacher has turned out to be just another capable but forgettable movie star, a franchise-killing bad-luck charm who works the same charisma-free, bad-luck magic on this fifth installment as he did in A Good Day to Die Hard.

And poor Arnold Schwarzenegger.* Having spent the last few weeks revisiting all the Terminator films, it pains me to see how far this towering action star has fallen. Scary in part one; charming, funny, and bad-ass in part two; goofy but passable in part three; and all-but absent in part four, the actor shows up as a sleepy version of himself in Genisys. Schwarzenegger gave me some hope for his post-politics career, with surprising turns in Maggie and even Sabotage, but his performance here is as close as I've seen him come to his Simpsons parody-doppelganger, McBain. Because Sarah Connor has, I guess, provided his character the ability to learn and develop a personality over decades, we get a lot of funny-sounding-robot-saying-silly-things jokes—and the obligatory unstoppable-creature-versus-unstoppable-creature violence that this series has, sadly, become famous for. 

The most interesting part of the film’s highly touted young-Arnold-fighting-old-Arnold scene is that it took a team of visual effects artists twelve months to construct a mostly convincing five-minute fight scene. They poured over every Schwarzenegger film, interview, and piece of archival footage to nail each expression, movement, and deltoid. An Australian bodybuilder was hired for the fight choreography and then digitally replaced, bit by bit, until the final showdown was as seamless as technologically possible.

And for what?

The fight has no stakes and, aside from that meta tidbit about its creation, is indistinguishable from the dozen other scenes in which people get thrown onto, over, and through things. The first two Terminator films, perhaps limited by their budget and available resources, placed a premium on inventiveness to realize impossible visions: a metal endoskeleton emerging from fire to stalk a helpless heroine; a liquid shape-changer faultily absorbing elements of its environment. Taylor’s film is a wall of digital white noise, unencumbered by limits and thus creatively uninspired.

I won't discuss Genisys's main villain because A) I'm really tired of writing about this movie, and B) I'd like to give you a leg up on the picture that I never had. Early in the Genisys marketing campaign, some genius decided it would be a great idea to put the movie's major plot twist smack-dab in the center of the trailer. A couple weeks later, that twist also became the focal point of the new lobby poster. I don't know if marketing teams think we're so stupid as to need everything spelled out and spoiled for us in order to get our money, or if they think moviegoers will simply forget the relentless advertising once the lights go down.

The only way to enjoy Terminator Genisys is to power down your CPU for a couple hours. What was once an innovative cautionary tale about selling our humanity short in favor of technological convenience has morphed into a weapon against intelligence--endorsed by an off-brand approximation of its creator.

*Figuratively speaking, of course.

Saturday
Jun272015

Ted 2 (2015)

Ted Talks (But Has Nothing to Say)

It’s fitting that Seth MacFarlane is a huge Star Wars fan. Like his idol, George Lucas, the Family Guy and Ted creator reached such a high point in entertainment that he no longer has to take editorial orders from anyone. While all artists aspire to creative and financial freedom, a lack of boundaries can lead to aimless excess. Lucas, once a scrappy young visionary who nearly killed himself convincing the world that Star Wars should be a thing, aged into a one-man branding empire whose concern for merchandising and “narrative poetry” resulted in the bloated and superfluous Prequel Trilogy. MacFarlane, once the scrappy young animator who fought Fox to resurrect Family Guy and then rocked the world by transitioning seamlessly from prime time cartoons to live-action filmmaking, floundered in A Million Ways to Die in the West and hits a dead stop in Ted 2.

The 2012 original made boatloads of cash, so a sequel was inevitable. Unlike most cash-ins, the premise of Ted 2 offers not only fertile comedic ground but is also incredibly topical. Ted, the talking stuffed bear who came to life thanks to a childhood wish by his owner, John (Mark Wahlberg), gets married to his human store-clerk girlfriend, Tami Lynn (Jessica Barth). Unable to conceive children, the couple tries a fertility clinic and, through a series of events I honestly don’t remember,* Ted’s personhood comes into question by the government. His marriage gets annulled, his credit cards revoked, and his iffy sovereignty becomes an “in” for toy manufacturer Hasbro, whose CEO (John Carroll Lynch) plans to reacquire and dissect the bear, and mass-market magical talking versions of him.

True, MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild aren’t obligated to deliver anything more than a foul-mouthed farce—and no one on the production could have known that their film’s opening would coincide with a landmark Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. But Ted 2 dabbles too loosely in both arenas to be anything more than a frustrating time-suck. The film opens with a quirky wedding scene, transitions into a tiresome opening musical number, and settles into a really disturbing domestic squabble whose only laughs, I guess, come from the fact that one of the combatants is a talking bear. Swap any human into the Ted role, and you have the beginnings of a battered-spouse picture--not the makings of a goofy road-trip movie; certainly not a film that anyone looking to promote equal rights would want to hold up, let alone watch.

That's part of MacFarlane's schtick: pushing the audience to the limits of their comedic expectations to see who's left laughing in the crossed-arms crowd. The best litmus test is Family Guy's "Chicken Fight" motif, in which Peter Griffin and a guy in a chicken suit punch each other repeatedly for minutes on end, in the middle of an episode that's not really about them. For some, it's a moment to fast-forward on the DVR; for others (like me), it's a great comedy loop that moves from absurd to funny to taxing and back again. Ted 2 is a dark-spirited, two-hour version of that, though, and even fans have their limits.

This might've been easier to stomach had MacFarlane and company begun with a solid vision. The creator recently admitted that the initial story idea involved a cross-country pot-smuggling adventure--which was scrapped when We're the Millers stole their thunder. The Ted's-rights plot could have been a hard-hitting civil rights satire (yes, including the John-gets-drenched-in-semen joke), but the behind-the-scenes schizophrenia emits black radiation from the screen. The road-trip stuff is still there, as is a half-hour of fertilization/adoption skits; a dropped-ball Inherit the Wind-style courtroom drama (with the wonderful John Slattery giving the slimy-lawyer archetype an unexpectedly sincere dimension); a detour to New York Comic-Con, a stilted romance between Ted's pot-smoking lawyer, Samantha (Amanda Seyfried), and John; and the Hasbro storyline, which brings back Giovanni Ribisi's creepy villain from Part One. Any one of these plots require specific story beats to get from A to Z. MacFarlane's team mashes them all together and ticks off each box--resulting in a bad, four-hour Netflix sitcom disguised as a foul-mouthed message movie.

That's not to say I didn't laugh a bit. Ted 2 is packed with MacFarlane's trademark non-sequitur celebrity cameos (Liam Neeson's was a highlight), and you can make a drinking game out of how many Star Trek: The Next Generation actors pop up in this thing.** There's also a visit to an improv club that provided some much needed third-act relief. But some of the humor was downright incongruous with Ted 2's greater message about the dignity of all sentient creatures. In a courtroom scene, Ted refers to gays as "fags" and "homos" with a clueless insensitivity that defies belief. In context, the writers don't use these terms to describe how clueless, insensitive people refer to an oppressed minority; Ted actually uses the tools of oppression to describe that group. The distinction is hair-fiber fine, but it's important, and makes me wonder what kind of people are actually behind Ted.

In addition to four decent laughs, I'll give this film credit for two other things. First, the visual effects used to make Ted a believable, interactive creature are phenomenal. Even more so than the first film, I believed that Wahlberg and Seyfried had a relationship with a talking teddy bear. Somehow, MacFarlane's team of artists made the character's dead marble eyes dance--an illusion of expression, considering that they don't actually move.

Second, I appreciated what the filmmakers tried to do with product placement here. Unlike Jurassic World, which nakedly asked audience members to drink Starbucks while signing up for Verizon, Ted 2 turns sponsorship on its ear--sort of. Hasbro is all over this picture, from My Little Pony statues to a framed Monopoly board in the CEO's office to more Transformers than actually appeared in Wahlberg's last outing with them, this is about as product-place-y as you can get. Yet, Hasbro is the villain here, the unscrupulous corporation whose leader will kowtow to a skeevy janitor's criminal plans in the name of making a buck. When backed into a corner, Lynch's character even tries to pin the whole thing on Mattel. It's simultaneously brilliant and gross, and reminded me of the first film's superior qualities.

I don't know what's next for Seth MacFarlane, but my enthusiasm meter has been firmly reset to "0". For me, the fact that this guy can do whatever he wants, apparently, has morphed from a point of fascination to one of concern for my very valuable time. Family Guy and the original Ted may not be everyone's comedic cup of tea, but they are undoubtedly boundaries-pushing and often nimble works. MacFarlane's last two efforts (especially this one) put the "Ted" in "tedious".

*Doubly sad, since I saw the film less than 48 hours ago.

**Four, by my count.

Wednesday
Jun172015

Jurassic World (2015)

Wonder No More

"Repetition works, David. Repetition works, David."

--Wayne Gale, Natural Born Killers

Last Friday, my son checked out a book from the library called The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Commercials. In it, Mama and Papa Bear discover that their kids have become obsessed with every toy, treat, and cereal advertised on television. As you might imagine, this leads to piles of expensive crap laying about the house, and two children who don't appreciate the value of anything for more than five minutes. The parents devise an ingenious plan to buy Brother and Sister Bear everything they see on TV one day--with the condition that they don't get anything else until all the cereal is gone, the treats are eaten, and the toys have been played with for one month. Without the prospect of shiny new things around every corner, the kids must actually taste their sugary food substitutes, and they grow bored with the cheaply made products that are neither as durable nor interesting as their cartoon pitchmen made them out to be.

Someone could write a similar book called The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Jurassic World, as the first in a long line of absolutely essential summer-blockbuster cautionary tales. Jurassic World looks like a film and and is being pushed as one. Its credits even list four screenwriters and a director. But make no mistake: this is a product manufactured by Universal Pictures, just as whatever device you're reading this review on was once an anonymous item in a shipping container. Its goal is to sell other products now (tickets, Blu-rays of the original films, and LEGO sets) and more later (downloads of itself, tickets to the sequel, and still more LEGO).

There's no evidence on screen that anyone cared to make something better than (or even worthy of) Steven Spielberg's 1993 Jurassic Park. With the season's second record-breaking, opening-weekend box office under its belt, Universal can safely say that doubling down on shiny-object filmmaking pays off in spades. The fact that director Colin Trevorrow has delivered third-generation Xerox of the original film that ignores the sequels (while pretending not to be one) is immaterial, thanks in large part to branding efforts and the inclusion of newly minted blockbuster darling, Chris Pratt.

The studio planted seeds years ago, with the release of the new film's title and premise. As a name, Jurassic World implies far greater scale than Jurassic Park. Maybe, just maybe, it teased, the whole planet would be overrun by the prehistoric denizens of Isla Nublar. Imagine drones bombing brachiosauruses in Berlin, or T-Rexes tackling tanks in Texas! Instead, we're dropped into a new part of the same old island where tragedy struck decades before. In every sense, this is just Jurassic Park 4 by way of Friday the 13th Part 2.

Following the events of the first film, a billionaire (Irrfan Khan) opens a new dinosaur-themed entertainment destination called Jurassic World. It's a smash, for awhile. To an ADD-addled public, however, even watching raptors run free is no match for Twitter-feed updates. As attendance flags, investors demand bigger, badder dinos with "more teeth". The park's lab techs successfully whip up several batches of DNA bouillabaisse but something...goes wrong!

I loved the idea of living, breathing, rampaging dinosaurs becoming passe in our technology-dependent culture. As others have stated, Jurassic World is the perfect metaphor for the evolution of summer movies: where Spielberg and Stan Winston broke new ground in developing Jurassic Park's blend of practical puppetry and computer graphics (applying imagination even as they evoked it), Jurassic World's effects are ninety percent CGI--resulting in countless minutes of giant, indistinguishable creatures smashing into each other on digital planes far removed, viscerally, from the human actors whose sole job is lending them scale and believability. 

The film also teases us with the threat of dinosaurs attacking 22,000 visitors who happened to have shown up on the worst possible day. Aside from the open-air pteranodon attack you've seen in the trailers, though, there's no danger to anyone outside our core group of heroes and villains. The theme-park refugees are safely cordoned off in a facility at the tip of the island and not seen again until the post-climax cool-down. Sure, we're told that the film's big bad lizard, Indominous Rex,* is on its way to eat those people. But we never meet anyone in this crowd for more than twenty seconds, and instead wind up following (yet again) the exploits of six people running through a jungle.

The film's greatest crime is its boastful lack of originality. From the character archetypes (scheming corporate mole; well-intentioned-but-clueless park owner; dashing hero and his kinda-sorta-inevitable girlfriend; two screaming kids whose favorite subject in school is "Introduction to Movie Peril"); to the unrelenting Jurassic Park references; to the gross, omnipresent product placement, this is the most nakedly antagonistic yet opportunistic film of its kind that I've seen in awhile--the brand-cult realization of that old bit, "You could literally show Such-and-Such Actor reading the phone book for two hours and it'd be a hit."

About that product placement: Wayne's World effectively drew attention to the uncomfortable need for corporate sponsors by working an ironic super-commercial into its story. Jurassic World assaults the viewer with logos and then comments on them by saying, "Gee, these corporate logos sure are obnoxious, aren't they? Man, this Starbucks really hits the spot!" One approach is wryly sincere; the other is equivalent to someone claiming they're not a racist, just before launching into a straight-faced joke about foreigners.

Before you ask what right I had to expect something different from the third sequel in a movie about dinosaurs fighting each other, let me direct your attention to Mad Max: Fury Road (for the umpteenth time this summer). Series creator George Miller spent decades conceiving of and developing a follow-up to the trilogy he created in the 1970s. He came roaring back with a spectacle that yanked cynical, action-weary audiences up by their collars and forced them not only to care whether or not his characters lived or died, but to wonder about the greater universe being built in real-time at the edge of every frame. That film, like the original Jurassic Park, cared just as much about keeping the brain humming as the blood pumping.

Everyone involved in Jurassic World, from Trevorrow to composer Michael Giacchino to the team of visual artists,** is riffing on Spielberg or John Williams or James Cameron. Yeah, there's a lot of Aliens in here, too, especially involving the two teams of paramilitary goons that the owner sends out to hunt dinos. From the "They're coming out of the Goddamned walls" moment to the look of horror on the goober-in-charge's face as his teams' heart monitors flat-line on giant displays, it's apparent that Universal is banking on moviegoers either not knowing that these are references, or embracing them as just more noise in the multi-million-dollar nostalgia-bomb extravaganza. Instead of breaking the curse of Spielberg-related Part 4's, Jurassic World fits comfortably into the pantheon with Jaws: The Revenge and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Jurassic World is not awesome, entertaining, better than the original, or even good. Your kids may love it, and it has been engineered on a cellular level to induce goosebumps in those whose only demand of movies is that they start on time. In twenty years, the film's record-breaking opening weekend will have been surpassed as many times over, and I imagine audiences will be hard-pressed to tell which dinosaurs (or human characters) appeared in part four versus the inevitable part five (or six or seven). Compared to Jurassic Park, the groundbreaking, heart-felt feature that made this "brand" possible, Jurassic World is just a TV commercial--an advertisement for imagination disguised as a gateway to it.

*Whose name sounds like it came from the middle of George Lucas' Sith Lord reject pile.

*Their work, while pretty, lacks wonder and surprise. Incidentally, these are not good reactions to have while watching a film called Jurassic World: "I know what a monorail looks like. I've ridden one. Hey, it's a computer-generated monorail, wow." "That velociraptor looks totally different now that it's got a blue stripe on its back. Heh, they named it 'Blue'." "Why does Indominous Rex look like a T-Rex with King Koopa's shell glued to its back?" 

Friday
Jun122015

The Farewell Party (2014)

Living with Dignity

While most movies strive to entertain and instruct, the best pull our spirits over to the side of the road for a much-needed appreciation of life's magnificent scenery. Exhibit A is The Farewell party, a sweet tear-jerker with a heart as big as its humor is black. Co-writers/directors Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon's story of Israeli septuagenarians forming a secret right-to-die cabal within their retirement community is as poignant a movie as I've seen in years. As human-frailty pictures go, this one makes Still Alice look like the sparkling Hollywood tripe that it is.

Ze'ev Revach stars as Yehezkel, a machinist living in denial that his wife, Levana (Levana Finkelstein), is succumbing to dementia. When the couple's best friend laments that her terminally ill husband is in for a long haul of undue pain and suffering, Yehezkel works with a retired veterinarian (Ilan Dar) to develop a Kevorkian-inspired dignified-death machine. Word spreads quickly, and Yehezkel and his gang soon find themselves in high demand.

As absurd and morbid as the premise is, Granit and Maymon ground their story in recognizable human truths. Each character in the film presents a complex question to the audience. There's a closeted doctor who asks us to consider the uselessness of shame; another resident desperately violates his every decent instinct in blackmailing Yehezkel into assisting his wife's suicide; Yehezkel himself must rally to stave off panic attacks (which he believes, perhaps rightfully so, are harbingers of something far more serious); it doesn't help that Levana is morally opposed to his contraption and the buzz it's created in their once relatively peaceful world.

In addition to sharp writing powered by nth-level insights, The Farewell Party's greatest asset is its cast. A mainstream Hollywood movie of this kind would have surely starred Morgan Freeman, Judi Dench, and Jack Nicholson, absent-mindedly playing their greatest hits. But this talented troupe has the un-glamorous, world-weary look of people who've come to the end of long and interesting lives. I know nothing of the actors' careers outside The Farewell Party (shame on me), but there's nothing presumptuous or artificial about a single choice here.

Granit and Maymon treat even the broad comedic elements as integral parts of their greater story--instead of cute diversions from it. The film's cold open, in which Yehezkel calls a depressed widow and offers comforting words as the voice of God, is cute and implies that The Farewell Party will have an almost episodic structure. But that moment becomes important later, in one scene that ties directly back to it and another that is the capper to the film's spiritual thesis.

I'm still a relatively young man, but I have a wife and a son who grow older every day (as do I, of course). To what ends would I go to ease their pain? What am I doing today to ensure a lifetime of fond memories that they might look back on? In Yehezkel and Levana's complicated relationships with their friends, daughter and granddaughter, and each other, I experienced a lifetime of memories and emotional mountains and molehills. They say life passes before your eyes when you die; The Farewell Party offers the cinematic version of that--along with a big, warm hug to last the rest of your days.

Friday
Jun122015

Der Samurai (2014)

The Sword and the Conjurer

Before watching Der Samurai, I'd never seen a film distributed by Artsploitation Films. Though I wasn't bowled over by writer/director Till Kleinert's offbeat psychological thriller, it did make me appreciate both the possibilities and problems of mashing up an art film with an exploitation film. Der Samurai is a finer artistic achievement than I'm used to seeing in indie genre films, but it's not refined enough, story-wise, to necessarily warrant attention from non-horror fans.

The movie follows Jakob (Michel Diercks) a skittish young cop working a thankless beat in the small German he grew up in. Wolves have been causing terror and property destruction in the area, and Jakob leaves bloody bags of meat around town to draw the animal out. Instead, he summons Der Samurai (Pit Bukowski), a gravel-voiced, hare-lipped cross-dresser who leaps about the shadows wielding a fearsome blade. Over the course of one bizarre and bloody evening, Jakob struggles to defend his loved ones, strangers, and childhood bullies from this taunting phantom--who may be a wolf-ghost, a ghost-ghost, or the manifestation of his own repressed socio-sexual anxiety.

Diercks and Bukowski are terrific, bringing intense personalities to life that are sure to be instantly adopted by whatever cult circles discover and elevate this film. I'd be surprised to not hear about at least one Der Samurai cosplayer skulking about San Diego Comic-Con next month, striking fear (or at least unease) into the inevitable hordes of Mad Maxes, Furiosas, and War Boys. With his ruby-red lips pouting from behind a dazzling mop of hair, and lithe body giving his white dress the undulating appearance of snakeskin, Bukowski is a bona fide icon.

For his part, Diercks plays weaselly and unsure like nobody's business. That's a big problem. For as much as Der Samurai belongs to, well, Der Samurai, this is ultimately Jakob's movie. Unlucky us, our protagonist is not sustainable as a likable (or even tolerable) presence for the film's relatively slim 79 minutes. Kleinert's screenplay sets out on a wonderfully weird footing, plopping us into an isolated community whose police department shuts down after dark. I was with Jakob for the film's first half as he cautiously followed leads and pieced together the horror that was about to disrupt the community.

By the end, however, Jakob becomes an impossible boob, a country mouse of a non-entity who isn't just afraid of his shadow, he takes orders from it on how to move. By the time he gets up the courage to rush into perilous situations, he's already spent any psychic energy he might have used to actually save the day--which leads to mayhem, mass-beheadings, and an unlikely climax that made me wish he'd just been Tyler Durden all along.*

Granted, Der Samurai's selling point isn't its story. The film's hero is the way cinematographer Martin Hanslmayr's blackly poetic imagery services Kleinert's vision and editing sensibilities. Wooded nightscapes come alive in strange animated compositions that don't evoke fear so much as fascination. Consider the scene in whch a passerby's car lights up a pitch-black country road. Hanslmayr grows the headlights out of nothing and lingers on the shot as they merge into a recognizable form. No doubt, you've seen similar imagery in other movies, but Der Samurai's filmmakers treat these nothing transitions as creative opportunities instead of filler.

I don't know how casual horror/exploitation fans will react to Der Samurai. Strong performances, artistic camerawork, and imaginative staging of action scenes will take a movie far. But it ultimately boils down to story--for me, anyway, and I could feel those last twenty minutes straining against Kleinert's brain. I'm not usually one to ask for more convention in the movies, or to advocate for American adaptations of cool European films. But in this case, Der Samurai could use a little more focus and a lot less interpretive dance.**

*Is that a spoiler? Only Der Samurai knows for sure.

**That's not a figure of speech.