Thursday, August 30, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: 28 Days Later (2002)

Imagine yourself a Londoner, and one morning you wake up from a coma in an empty hospital.  No nurses, no patients, not a soul anywhere, only a mess of trash and empty rooms.  You stumble outside to find that London itself is in shambles, and virtually devoid of any people.  London, one of the largest cities in the world, is empty.  Panic caused an evacuation, and now you are left alone to try and figure out what happened to everyone.  This is where Jim (Cillian Murphy) finds himself at the onset of Danny Boyle's gripping horror 28 Days Later.  The opening scene, where Jim wanders around a London strewn with trash and abandoned cars, is arguably one of the most chilling opening scenes in all of film.  It is a masterwork of scope and dread, made palpable by the very personal touch of Jim, wandering alone and confused.  

Soon Jim discovers that a blood borne disease has spread across the masses, a "rage," turning people into violent, hissing, spitting zombies who attack mindlessly on sight.  He is chased by these monsters, only to be saved by a few survivors who lay out the last four weeks much to his disbelief.  "What about the government?" Jim asks one survivor, Mark (Noah Huntley).  There is none he says.  How can this be?  There is always a government somewhere in a plane or a bunker.  Only not this time.

The structure of 28 Days Later follows a familiar path; a small group of survivors travel across an apocalyptic urban wasteland in search of more survivors in hopes of keeping society together.  Jim and his traveling party come across a father (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter, holed up in an apartment.  Turns out they have a car, with gas, and can get everyone across the city to try and find the source of a radio signal that has recently been cast out over the air.  All the while they must keep their eyes peeled and stave off attacks from "the infected."  Their journey leads them to a militarized compound where certain new issues arise and the infected are looked at differently by a certain general and his men.

Director Danny Boyle changed the game ten years ago with his new zombies.  To this point, zombies were slow and lumbering creatures who could only get anything accomplished by overwhelming their victims in sheer volume.  These new and improved zombies move fast and furious, spitting blood and attacking quickly.  One or two of these monsters is too much to handle, let alone a large group.  Boyle also shoots in a high-contrast digital camera, creating shadows at every corner.  There is always an impending sense of doom at the edges of the screen.  This is a visionary piece of pop art in the horror genre, a sleek and stylish thriller with real wieght behind its action.

28 Days Later was also, to my memory, the first film to tap into the fears of the world following the attacks of 9/11.  Released in November of 2002, here is a depiction of a world fallen apart, crumbling under chaos and mass hysteria because of a disease or a weaponized chemical.  In the aftermath of the attacks anything seemed like a real possibility.  Those deserted streets of Lower Manhattan were an eerie sight in the real world, not far from this fictionalized version of an abandoned London metropolis.  I remember 28 Days Later being that much more unsettling back then, though it has not weakened with age.  This is still one of the best zombie horror pictures you will ever see.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

FOREIGN CORNER: Rashomon (1950)

For whatever reason, in my film career I have not seen enough of Akira Kurosawa.  And over the last month I have tried to remedy this great misstep.  Yojimbo is a classic, without doubt, but Rashomon might be considered more important in the Kurosawa timeline.  It is an early film in his career and one that opened doors in his career.  Without Rashomon, which was a worldwide success and groundbreaking film, some of the best of Kurosawa may have never existed.  That being said, I did not entirely love Rashomon, not in the way I adored Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, or Kagemeshu.  But, as I have said in defense of myself many times before, I understand why the film is great.

While it may be too melodramatic or slow or drawn out for my personal tastes, the structure and the ingenuity behind the plot of the film is important in the grand scheme.  It is an inspiration for so many pictures in history.  But it doesn't change the fact that, in my eyes, the film is lacking.  Don't get me wrong, the fact that there is no resolution to this film doesn't have any sort of bearing on my reaction.  In fact, the ambiguity of the events is one of the better aspects. 

Rashomon tells the story of a murder and a rape through the eyes of four different witnesses, all who claim to have been the murderer.  That last point of the description is key.  Had all four been accounts of guiltless participation, Rashomon would have taken on an entirely different tone.  But, as these witnesses all claim to be the killer, then who is right and why would all of the others express their guilt.  In the forefront is the bandit, played by Kurosawa regular Tishoro Mifune.  As a compatible piece, Kurosawa never had a more reliable actor than Mifune.  When considering the career of Martin Scorsese, who idolized Kurosawa, his use of Robert Deniro seems parallel to Kurosawa's use of Mifune.  The two men understood each other completely.

the film opens on a rainy afternoon, where a commoner is struggling to work through the confessions he has heard.  The flash back to the past is without the rain, and a clear break in the action, as the confessions come one after another.  But nobody is right and nobody is wrong.  How does it work?  There is no answer in the film, instead it focuses on the way these characters embellish their stories.  And Kurosawa shows his skills as a visual master in early scenes where the past and present are separated by long, extended journeys through the jungle.

There are things to admire about Rashomon, especially since this was one of Kurosawa's earliest films.  He is working out things with this picture, and they work.  They just don't work to me.  At times the melodrama drowns the film, and there are moments which go on much too long for their own good.  I understand that Rashomon is a classic in cinema, but I think it is more for what it created than what it was itself.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Saturday Scatter: The Game, Robocop, DePalma, September

* Brian DePalma: Genius, Hack, or a Little of Both?  My new article over at whatculture.com

* The more time that passes, the more I realize that The Game is David Fincher's best film.  There's a reason it is getting the Criterion treatment first:




http://collider.com/wp-content/uploads/the-game-criterion-blu-ray-cover.jpeg

* This Robocop remake will be failed.  I'm convinced.  I don't have many reasons to back my theory other than the fact that Verhoeven remakes aren't getting off to the best start (Total Recall).  Take the humor out of Verhoeven, and you're left with a soulless film.

* We are entering the dark period of September for films, but this year we can call it the dark period of early September.  Look, right there on September 14th, it's The Master.

* I think studios are realizing September shouldn't be simply loaded with garbage.  It's a good time to cleanse our palette from the summer garbage.

* I don't know what to make of Lawless.  I had the highest of hopes for John Hillcoat after The Proposition, and after he gave his best effort with the unfilmable adaptation of The Road.  But Lawless feels - it oozes - generic.  Maybe I am wrong.  I'd like to be.

* T-shirt of the week:


20% Off
Metropolis - Yellow Stripe T-Shirt

Thursday, August 23, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Cape Fear (1991)

Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear isn't so much under appreciated as it is underestimated.  It is recognized as significant, but what often goes overlooked is the psychological and stylistic intensity of the film.  Some may say overindulgence; I would say Scorsese is telling the appropriate story.  There are individual scenes which stand out as brilliant, functioning in every way needed, and an eerie menace creeps through the production.  Cape Fear has and always will find a place on the second tier of Marty's work.  But that is a fine place to be.

Seeing it again recently, I find more details in every passing scene, more psychological complexities with even the smallest details.  Often seen as a chaotic and rapid film, every scene is meticulous in detail and staging.  And, to me, the film itself is more frightening now than it once was because it is one of those rare films that can evolve in your mind over the years.  Seeing Scorsese's remake against the original starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck is to see two entirely different interpretations of the same story.  The original is patient and quiet, Scorsese's version is a wild and psychotic ride.  They each have their merits, but Scorsese manages to push the envelope with his creation of Max Cady at the hands of the once brilliant Robert DeNiro.

DeNiro's Max Cady is a convicted rapist who, as the film opens, is being released from prison after fourteen years.  He has become an educated man, using religion as a shield and as motivation.  Strictly Old Testament.  He has one single goal, to bring down his attorney, Samuel Bowden.  Nick Nolte plays Bowden as a morally-conflicted man whose past is checkered with misdeeds.  That is the beauty of Scorsese's vision; there are no true lines of good and evil.  While Max Cady is clearly a maniac hell bent on destruction, Nolte's Bowden is a snake we struggle to root for.  Cady plans on bringing down Bowden's life from the inside, seducing his daughter and destroying the thin line keeping the unit together. 

Sam's wife, Leigh, is played by Jessica Lange as a headstrong wife whose patience runs thin throughout the film.  Juliette Lewis is Danny, Sam and Leigh's young teenage daughter who becomes a target of Max Cady later in the film.  More on that in a moment.  Cady begins by appearing in public places, taunting Sam, encroaching on those relationships he has made outside of his family.  Cady tells Sam he has done a lot fo reading, mostly books about the law, and realizes that Sam threw him under the bus in his trial.  That is his motivation, to make Sam feel the pain Max felt for fourteen years behind bars.  Cady continues his psychological assault on Bowden and his family, managing to stay within the law or out of the law's eye the entire time, further frustrating Bowden.  There are a great number of disturbing moments in Cape Fear, all coming to a head in the climax aboard a houseboat being tossed around in a tropical storm.  But the most unsettling moment comes when Danny meets Max, at her school in the theater.  Cady is on the stage, in a makeshift log cabin among some spooky cardboard trees.  Cady seduces Danny in an extended and disturbingly psychological scene:

 

The scene is one of the most haunting of the film, a patient, quiet, and disturbing moment amid the chaos.  It shows the scope of Cady's intelligence, the way he can turn Danny against her family despite the fact he is clearly insane.

Cape Fear will never come with the fanfare of Scorsese's more popular, Oscar-winning films.  But there is no denying the energy of Scorsese's vision and the power and depth of the performances.  There are no clean getaways and no true heroes in Cape Fear, only bad and worse.  It is a great moral conundrum driving the film.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

End of the Summer Review: Wading Through a Lackluster 2012 Season

Not that the summer movie season is ever loaded with the highest quality films, but this summer of 2012 felt especially flaccid at the multiplexes.  There are a many number of factors playing into this lackluster year, I believe.  First and foremost, expectations were not met all throughout these summer months.  Then there were the remakes and sequels, falling flat for the most part.  There were maybe two critically-acclaimed entries this season - maybe a few more but we'll get into that in a minute - while everything else suffered through mediocrity.  All in all, I find myself relieved now that the summer season is coming to an end, and I look forward to the fall to get this sour taste out of my mouth.  Let's just hope the promise of this upcoming fall and awards season - and there is a great deal of promise - doesn't turn out the way these hot months did.

EXPECTATIONS


We may as well start with the great expectations leading up to this summer slate.  There are always big, big films audiences are eagerly awaiting, and it seems that every year there are a handful that deliver on the promise of their trailers.  The Avengers got things off on the right foot, and was the most widely accepted big-budget summer flick of the season.  It was a smash success, and a hugely entertaining fanboy dream.  And July brought us the enigmatic and oft-discussed finale to Christopher Nolan's epic Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.  For all of its collection of minor warts, this will be the most discussed and picked apart film of the entire year.  That speaks volumes to the magnitude and lasting impact of Nolan's final Batman, more so than any type of disappointment may be out there.  For the most part these two films met expectations and they delivered on promises.  But what about everything in between those films?  And what about everything beyond The Dark Knight Rises?

Men in Black III came and went without much fanfare, still bringing in a little dough.  It currently sits at $178 million, and while that is respectable I imagine it was much less than was expected.  Snow White and The Huntsman has more publicity now than it did upon release given the shady on-set romances.  Even Pixar's Brave didn't seem to carry with it the energetic Pixar fanfare the likes of Toy Story or Wall-E or, well, any other Pixar film.  And what about The Amazing Spider Man?  Was it so Amazing?  Sure, it's 73% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes is okay, and the $257 million haul seems solid.  Andrew Garfield is a good Peter Parker and The Lizard is fun and yadda yadda yadda... When was the last time you heard anyone discussing this film at all?  I remember seeing the film, then I remember not thinking a single thought about it until, well, right now.  It was entertaining I suppose, but hollow, soulless and ultimately unnecessary.  Just another one of these reboots and remakes and sequels that fell flat - although this new Spidey might have had the loftiest expectations.

REMAKE/REBOOT/SEQUEL STALENESS

These things seem to be getting worse.  Some sequels are inevitable and some audiences cannot wait to see, because they end a trilogy or they have to exist to carry on a franchise in the right way.  But why was this Spider Man reboot necessary five years after Sam Raimi's last film was released?  Beats me.  And then there is Total Recall, a vapid remake of the classic Paul Verhoeven sci-fi romp that was stripped of its humor and style for CGI overload.  While Colin Farrell is a finer actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger, I don't think he fits in a big action film like this.  I know it is chic right now to remake Verhoeven films, but there is a reason they won't work.  The satire of Verhoeven's work cannot translate into a remake.  Which is why I feel less than optimistic for the upcoming Robocop remake.  That is for another segment.

The Bourne Legacy also missed the mark.  While it was still at least an interesting film, something was missing from the picture.  Tony Gilroy and company did some interesting things with plot structure, but the heart and soul of the film and its characters, save for the performance of Rachel Weisz, were lacking.  It just adds up to another lackluster reboot/sequel hybrid that failed to meet lofty expectations.  Then, of course, there was Prometheus.  While I vehemently defend Ridley Scott's return to Alien territory as a thought-provoking spectacle, and while I admire the ambition of the picture, there was not a more divisive and maddening film this summer for fanboys and moviegoers in general.  I will admit there were holes large enough to drive spacecraft through, and some plot threads fell apart, but the effort was enough for me.  There is a beautiful film at the heart of Prometheus, despite the warts.  Nevertheless, one would have to chalk the film up as an overall disappointment.

Then there  is The Expendables 2... I don't have the energy to get into this right now.

ON THE BRIGHTER SIDE...


There were a few smaller-scale films this summer that saved the season for me.  Two of them, Magic Mike and Killer Joe, proved to the world that Matthew McConaughey was ready to show off his range and abilities as a great (yes, great) actor once again.  Most people would label Moonrise Kingdom the best film of the summer, and while I simply could not engage with the film I see why many tag it as Wes Anderson's greatest work in a decade.  But these films have something in common; solid directors.  Look at the two most successful big summer films, directed by true visionaries.  Sure, Scott may have faltered, but Joss Whedon and Chris Nolan showed off their directorial prowess in The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, respectively.  And in these smaller films, it was Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike), William Friedkin (Killer Joe) and Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom) who were able to pull us through a less than stellar summer movie season.

Unfortunately, Oliver Stone couldn't save his hapless and aimless Savages

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tony Scott (1944-2012)


What an odd and tragic end to one of the more consistently entertaining directors Hollywood has ever seen.  I have often looked at the careers of Tony Scott and his brother, and while it is Ridley who gets the bulk of the accolades.  Sunday afternoon, Tony Scott leaped to his death from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles.  An inoperable brain tumor was the news Scott received at some point before his decision to take his own life.  Never one to stray from adventure, my pure speculation is that Scott could not imagine a life of pain and immobility keeping his from his adventurous lifestyle.  He cut it off at the pass.  That is not to say his decision was the right one, it was short-sighted and selfish indeed.  But, knowing Scott's penchant for a fast life, the way in which he ended his run here makes perfect sense.

Tony Scott will always be remembered first and foremost for making Tom Cruise a superstar in Top Gun, but that is merely the tip of the iceberg for Scott's career.  Not to mention the fact that Top Gun is anything but his best film.  There are a great many pictures to examine and consider his best.  Scott the director had style - a particular use of light and shadow in his earlier work followed by frenetic editing in his latter films - and he had an eye for smart action in dumb films.  He could take something ridiculous and make it beautiful in all of its glorious absurdity.  Very few Tony Scott films are the same, save for the Top Gun/Days of Thunder duo.  Here are, in my opinion, his five best...


5) Top Gun - As I said and as everyone knows, Top Gun is the picture that launched Tom Cruise into the stratosphere as the biggest, most bankable action star Hollywood has ever seen.  However, at the same time, the high-flying action spectacle also opened doors for Tony Scott.  The film, about a US fighter-pilot school and the egos at war within the program, was a smash success in 1986 that contained some awe-inspiring aerial fights.  Cruise plays Maverick, squaring off against his adversary, Ice Man (Val Kilmer), teaming up with his buddy, Goose (Anthony Edwards), and falling for Charlie (Kelly McGillis), a teacher at the flight school.  Time has not been kind to Top Gun, but it still deserves its place in the Pantheon of American cinema.


4) The Last Boyscout - Some days I might place this picture higher on my list.  Never lower.  While the premise is absurd, the one liners are shoe horned in most of the time, and the opening sequence is bawdy, The Last Boyscout nevertheless is an excellent cash in on the buddy-cop films made famous after Lethal Weapon.  In fact, one scene in The Last Boyscout has Lethal Weapon playing on a TV set, clearly an homage.  This film features Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans as hard-luck former stars in their respective craft teaming up to bring down corruption in pro football and the California government.  This has and always will be one of my favorite action flicks, despite the noticeable flaws.


3) Man on Fire - I wasn't as much of a fan of this film the first time I saw it.  I found the editing distracting and the story bloated.  But after repeated viewings I learned to truly love it.  First of all, if I didn't care for it, I thought, why was I watching it again and again.  Because it is a rich and compelling revenge/kidnapping film with layers upon layers of action and pathos.  Denzel Washington plays a hired bodyguard out to find a kidnapped daughter (Dakota Fanning) of wealthy Mexico City debutantes.  The film relies on the magnetic performance of Washington, who attacks the film with ferocity and single-minded drive.  While the editing is still somewhat of a distraction, there is no denying the power and scope of the picture as a whole.


2) Crimson Tide - Submarine films have always seemed difficult to make given the close quarters and tension necessary to keep the limited mobility compelling.  Tony Scott figured out a way to make the dramatic moments in between the action scenes as riveting as any dialogue in a submarine movie; simply hire two brilliant actors and the picture takes care of itself.  Hackman plays an old and hard nosed sub captain, Washington the young idealist.  As the two butt heads over a fragmented distress call, pushing America to the brink of a possible nuclear war, the verbal sparring between Hackman and Washington is some of the best, most energetic dialogue in any submarine film. 


1) True Romance - Not only is True Romance the best Scott film, it is some sort of hyper-violent masterpiece.  Benefiting from a script by Quentin Tarantino, the romantic adventure film follows the exploits of Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) as they travel to California to sell some drugs and run off into the sunset.  Full of wonderful performances from the two leads, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken,  Dennis Hopper, Bronson Pinchot, and a great turn from Brad Pitt as Floyd the stoner, True Romance has been and always will be one of my all time favorites.  Pitt described it as a young man's wet dream, and to this I agree.  It has a dreamlike quality, and is fascinating from start to finish.

RIP Mr. Scott.  Though I doubt resting in peace would be your thing...

Saturday, August 18, 2012

SATURDAY SCATTER - An Updated Version From Around the Web

Rather than spout off my own personal thoughts in my regular Saturday Scatter, certain opinions I just regurgitate from my weekly tweets and whatnot, I decided to spend this time linking readers with interesting film-related lists, articles, and bits and pieces of Hollywood I have found throughout the week.  Here is a scattering of a smattering of some cinematic blathering...


5 Awesome and 5 Terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies...

Shia LeBeouf plans on having real sex in Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac... Necessary?

What if there were an all-female Expendables movie?  Who would star?  Check it here...

An interview with the great David Cronenberg on his latest mindfuck, Cosmopolis

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

THE DEFENSE CALLS: Great Expectations (1998)

As the trailer for the latest film adaptation of Great Expectations was released today, I found myself nostalgic for a version nearly fifteen years old now.  Naturally this isn't the sort of nostalgia one gets for the lesser-known films of Orson Welles, or the golden age of noir, but it was a tinge of admiration I hadn't felt in a while.  The 1998 version of Great Expectations is a sorely underappreciated, modern-day telling of the Charles Dickens classic.  And while the new version of the film, starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes among others, looks compelling in its own right, I firmly believe it will struggle to surpass the 1998 version from Alfonso Cuaron back before he was a heralded director of such films as Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien.

But Great Expectations sits at a paltry 38% on the Tomatometer.  I know now, as I did then, that critic and audience response was low, but this is a shame.  It was called too "pared down" by Todd McCarthy of Variety.  "A shiny surface with nothing underneath," says another critic.  So it was panned, released, and forgotten.  But this adaptation of the novel, taken from an industrial, turn-of-the-century Great Britain all the way to New England and Manhattan during the 80s, has a great richness and skillful storytelling at its core.  There are a number of reasons to reconsider Great Expectations.

EXHIBIT A: The Man Behind The Camera - Alfonso Cuaron was a nobody in Hollywood in the late nineties.  Just another visionary director struggling to make his mark.  His big break would come a few years later when he changed the direction of the Harry Potter series from kid friendly to true fantasy in The Prisoner of Azkaban.  From there he would direct a science-fiction masterpiece in Children of Men.  And although Cuaron was an unknown in 1998, of course he still had his eye and his mind, and in Great Expectations he creates a universe of beautiful imagery and thoughtful scenery.  The dilapidated mansion of Miss Densmoor (Mrs. Havisham in the novel) is a spooky and ominous spectacle of art direction.  Cuaron directs the entire picture with style and panache, and makes each and every frame a rich exploration into the divided worlds of the rich and the poor.

EXHIBIT B: The Leads - Anne Bancroft is wonderfully extravagant as Havisham/Densmoor.  Of course Robert DeNiro, in one of his last good roles, is compelling as the escaped convict who secretly finances the ascent of Finn (Pip originally).  But Great Expectations rests on the shoulders of the male and female lead.  Gwyneth Paltrow is Estella, the woman forever manipulated to use and mentally abuse the love of her life, young Pip.  Pip, again as Finn in this version, is played by Ethan Hawke.  The two actors have a certain opposing chemistry perfect for the story.  Paltrow is cold and withdrawn, and very beautiful.  Hawke is wiry and taut and brimming with energy and frustration.  The way these two leads play off each other carries the film.  For anyone saying their portrayals are lacking, I say look a little closer next time.

EXHIBIT C: Changing the Times - Great Expectations had been done on film in 1946, set in the traditional time of the novel, so it seemed to be a fresh perspective moving the film to the 80s, changing the setting to Manhattan, and making Finn's rise to social stardom through his talent as an artist.  The entire set up of this version shapes the film like an article from Vogue magazine, stylish and contemporary.  It also helps to define the novel as a timeless tale of class politics and romance.  The romantic struggle between these two aimless lovers fits into the hedonistic lifestyles of Manhattan, and it is a bold move executed well by everyone involved.

IN CONCLUSION - Take another look at Great Expectations.  I imagine if many of these critics who panned the film would give it another chance they would see redeeming qualities here.  Maybe it would be due in part to Cuaron as an established director, and based in some fascination with his early career.  And that is short sighted.  Appreciate the film for what it is, a stylish and romantic picture with great performances big and small.

Monday, August 13, 2012

FOREIGN CORNER: Yojimbo (1961)

It is no surprise the direct parallel between Clint Eastwood and Toshiro Mifune, the hero of most of Akira Kurosawa's legendary samurai pictures.  Both are men who say so much more when they speak less.  Both are hard-nosed heroes who made their name playing men without names.  That being said, then, it is no surprise both men fit into a story about a drifter who plays both sides of a gang war.  A Fistful of Dollars is a Western classic, but it would never exist had it not been for Kurosawa's Yojimbo.  Remade beyond Eastwood and Sergio Leone's picture into a drab Bruce Willis film, Last Man Standing, Yojimbo influences so many films beyond these direct remakes.  It is the father of gangland wars in film, a samurai picture shaped as a western, adapted as a western, and rife with themes and materials familiar to any number of gangster flicks across the cinematic globe.

Mifune, again the hero of Kurosawa's vision, plays his own version of The Man With No Name.  In Yojimbo, he claims his name is "30 year-old mulberry field" in Japanese, another way of saying his name is not important.  He is a drifter, a jobless samurai looking for enough work to survive.  He only winds up in the town in question after throwing a stick into the air and walking in the direction of which it lands.  He discovers a town cloaked in fear and hamstrung by warring gangs on either side, both full of outlaws and low-rent hoods.  The first thing he sees in town is a dog carrying a human hand down the street.  Things are deteriorating.

One of the first townsfolk the samurai crosses is a squirrely little man who says he should get a job as a "Yojimbo," a bodyguard, for one of the factions.  The samurai, seeing the forest through the trees, decides to play these sides against each other until they are wiped out.  Many essays have been written about Yojimbo, about the thin moral regard of the hero.  Most say he is amoral and lacking any true compass, but I disagree.  To me I see a solid moral direction with the samurai's plan; he speaks on the idea early on in the film, where he says if he can destroy these warring gangs he can give this town a new start.  There are a few people worth saving here.

What drew me into Yojimbo more than anything was the energy behind the music.  It is vibrant, loud, and heavy.  It emphasizes the events.  When the samurai decides to show one gang what he is worth, he travels across the dusty city streets and promptly kills two men and severs the arm of another.  "Coffin maker" he says, "make two coffins."  He pauses... "Make it three."  At the end of his line, the music chimes in with stunning impact. 

There is a moment later in the picture where another man produces a pistol.  The introduction of a handgun in the film further shows the universal attitude behind the set design and themes.  The town looks like a western ghost town, and the gun serves to draw this narrative into a more modern times than the one occupied by samurai.  Kurosawa is one of the most measured and carefully brilliant directors in the history of celluloid.  By this, I mean he knows what each and every shot in his films is supposed to say, what the angle means, what the lighting tells us.  It all enriches the product.  Yojimbo may have been remade by the brilliance of Sergio Leone, and the sagging career of mid-nineties Bruce Willis.  Clearly it has never been surpassed.  

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Bourne Legacy


THE BOURNE LEGACY: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton (135 min.)

The Bourne Legacy is like the wind blowing behind the kite of an existing franchise, expanding the universe and carrying the torch up up and away.  Re-tooling a franchise on the fly is a daring proposition, so the most vital aspect might be getting quality actors in key roles.  The Bourne Legacy does this, with Jeremy Renner taking the reins from Matt Damon, Rachel Weisz picking up where Franka Potente left off in the original, and Edward Norton as the center of damage control back in those frenetic, super-secret offices.  The acting is all compelling, and some of the early action is griping.  But something begins to fizzle two thirds of the way through the picture.  Things begin to feel hollow.

Renner plays Aaron Cross, another protege of the Treadstone/Blackbriar/ultra-secretive spy-assassin organization dealing in international espionage.  As we pick up on the action, we have a parallel set of stories following Cross in the wilderness and another story which is an aside to the final moments of The Bourne Ultimatum.  If this sounds confusing, it is, but if you focus you can follow everything eventually.  There is overlap with Damon's last adventure, and the way the film fits in with Ultimatum is one of the more clever moments in the screenplay from director Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy.  Things begin with promise.  Jason Bourne's exposure of the Treadstone project prompts Colonel Eric Byer (Norton) to promptly erase the program - and all of those involved - from the face of the earth. 

Weisz plays Dr. Marta Shearing, head of a lab where the assassin propoganda is driven into the heads and bodies of these men.  There are mysterious pills at the core of The Bourne Legacy; one is for the mind and one is for the body, and both are pills which Cross needs in order to function.  Marta's lab analyzes and improves these products until, of course, the initiative is passed down to erase the program and one of her co-workers is left in charge of murdering everyone who might be a liability.  This scene, where Marta's lab partner soulessly shoots the doctors in question is quite a disturbing and tense moment in the film.  I almost think this scene should have saddled the picture with an R rating.

Marta escapes the attack, then is saved from another by Cross, who needs her to get him the medication.  This takes them to Manila, in the Philippines, where the film's climax takes place.  And by this time, I began to question the movie's motivations beyond extending a familiar name into a new franchise.  Renner as Cross is a magnetic personality, but he is lacking the emotional anguish of Damon's Bourne.  Without the amnesia and the reconsideration of his life as an assassin, without the guilt associated with the central character, Cross is infinitely less interesting.  It is Weisz who stands out here as a strong female lead who carries her own weight alongside Renner.

Action is also an important aspect of these films, and while there are some thrilling moments early the climactic chase scene is as dull and monotonous as it gets.  The way this lifeless finale drones on and on, across rooftops and sidewalks and on buses in cars and on motorcycles, is the biggest letdown of the film.  And yet, those first two acts carry the film and the franchise forward as best they can with a third act dragging down everything.  Tony Gilroy can handle the interplay between fine actors doing their thing, and he can handle the hand to hand combat well enough.  Where this franchise misses Paul Greengrass is in these elaborate chases and wrecks.  The Bourne Legacy is decent, but nowhere near its predecessors, overlap or no overlap.

B

Monday, August 6, 2012

Beasts of The Southern Wild


BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry (93 min.)

All of the actors in Beasts of The Southern Wild are not actors.  These are people in and from the region south of New Orleans, near "The Bathtub" where the film takes place.  It is an area severed from modern living, cut off from the real world where the majority of us roam.  Houses are built up on mounds of dirt and stilts to combat the consistently rising and falling ocean tides.  There is electricity, but I doubt there is running water or plumbing - though we never get into the bathroom habits of these characters.  The film examines the inhabitants of this bathtub as they refuse to give up their way of life in the face of certain death by flood.  It is an inspirational film, indeed, and it can be powerful at times.  But Beasts lacks forward momentum or a driving thematic element outside of the desire to show strong will and determination.

At the heart of Beasts is Hushpuppy, a precocious six-year old played by Quvenzhane Wallis.  Hushpuppy is a strong spirit in an unforgiving world.  She lives with - at least in close proximity of - her father, Wink, played by Dwight Henry.  Wink is a stern but loving father, who is determined to teach young Hushpuppy how to take care of herself.  The two live among a small community of straong-willed people, both white and black, who love their land and have no desire to better their living conditions.  Days consist of catching food, cooking, and socializing.  Their is something beautiful in the primitive nature of this society, and director Benh Zeitlin allows this world to develop organically on the screen.  Although, much of the time, he gets too caught up in the shaky cam.

The continuing theme of the film involves the environment and the human connection with nature.  Hushpuppy seems more in tune with the creatures in her world, the pigs and dogs and livestock, than she does with any of the people.  There is also a mythological back story involving creatures frozen in the icebergs of the South Pole who break free of their prison and float towards The Bathtub.  The confrontation is what I expected between Hushpuppy and these giant hog-like creatures. 

Hushpuppy also longs to meet her mother, whom she hasn't known most of her short life.  Wallis has been lauded as a force of nature on screen.  To this, I will say she is a commanding presence in the natural world of the film, but I never felt like she was doing much more than simply being a six-year old in front of the camera.  She delivers a solid performance, but how much of it is really acting?  Aside from the final moments of the film, I would think most of her performance is just her acting her age.

Beasts of The Southern Wild has been harolded as a masterpiece.  I don't see that.  What I do see is a competent film with compelling themes and solid performances.  But the direction feels lacking, and the camera work is much too frenetic for a picture like this.  In no way did I hate Beasts, but in no way did I fall head over heels in love.

B-

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Killer Joe


KILLER JOE: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church (103 min.)

William Friedkin has never been a director to shy away from the edge.  He tested the limits of audience endurance with his 1973 masterpiece, The Exorcist.  In 2006, he examined extreme psychological instability in Bug.  And before any of this he took home the Oscar for his gritty New York crime drama, The French Connection in 1971.  With Killer Joe, Friedkin again pushes the envelope while giving us something new, and something as intensely depraved and brilliant as anything he has done to this point in his forty-year career.  It is an odyssey into, arguably, the most depraved slice of humanity to ever grace the silver screen.  Often funny, always on edge, Killer Joe is the seediest of crime dramas with performances tailor-made to carry a plot of debauchery.

The plot focuses on Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), a lowlife drug dealer in deep with some local big shots.  Chris owes six grand in drug money to some heavy hitters or else he will be dead.  His plan: have his mother killed and cash in on the $50,000 life insurance policy.  He runs this scheme by his dad, Ansel, a hapless idiot played to perfection by Thomas Haden Church, channeling his dopey character from the TV show Wings.  After some convincing, terrible as it may be, Ansel agrees to the idea because, as Chris says "what does she really do for anybody?"  What do any of these people do for society?  That's besides the point.

Chris and Ansel hire Joe Cooper, a Dallas detective who moonlights as a contract killer.  Joe is played by Matthew McConaughey, in yet another bold move towards his career renaissance.  McConaughey embodies Killer Joe as a cold and calculating sociopath, but a charming one.  Always impeccably dressed, especially up next to the crew in this film, Joe manipulates the proceedings like a puppet master.  And when Chris and Ansel cannot cobble together the advance for the killing, Joe decides to take a retainer in the form of Chris' sister, Dottie, played by Juno Temple in a scene-stealing performance.  Dottie is aloof and wistful, but she seems to know the score from the start.  Her enigmatic performance is brilliant, right there with McConaugheys as the two of them share the majority of their screen time together. 

And somehow I have made it this far without mentioning Gina Gershon's Sharla, a pivotal role in the film and one which seems written for Gershon in mind.  Gershon has always been comfortable in low-rent sleaze films; not that she is that way in person, but she has a certain look and attitude conducive of these types of films.  Killer Joe is a picture after her own heart.  Sharla is Ansel's new wife, and she may very well know more than she indicates.

Events unfold, twists abound, and these characters all come together in a final twenty minutes of chaos and depravity unlike anything I can remember, all accented by the setting.  There is nothing more unstable in violent madness than a flimsy trailer park and tuna casserole, and Friedkin knows how to use the grimy sets to his utmost advantage.  Killer Joe is NC-17, and it earns the rating when all is said and done.  This is a film where you laugh, you clench your fists, you shake your head, and you feel just a little bit dirty walking out of the theater.  But man, is it a lot of fun, a brilliant little slice of white-trash pulp fiction.

Every performance in Killer Joe is perfect for the atmosphere in which this story exists.  And I cannot gush enough over this resurgence of Matthew McConaughey as a real, honest actor.  Here is the promise he showed as a young actor coming to fruition before our eyes.  He dominates this film as an ominous threat, always calm cool and collected but never too far away from a burst of violent domination.  Hirsch is challenging his sensibilities, and Church garners the most laughs.  Yes, oddly enough there are plenty comedic moments to go around.  It is a funny movie.  This is the type of picture where you find yourself laughing, but maybe you feel a tinge of guilt afterward.  And I have to say I may never look at a chicken leg the same way again.

A 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Bug (2006)

This segment, on this day, initially felt like a foregone conclusion.  I was all set to write about Total Recall on the eve of the remake's release.  But then a film from recent memory caught my eye, and it made even more sense to revisit here, on the eve of director William Friedkin's latest picture Killer Joe.  Friedkin, a visceral and often brilliant director, has spanned forty years behind the camera and doesn't seem ready to stop yet.  Bug is a claustrophobic, terrifying thriller that I hated at first.  I found nothing redeeming or memorable about the film or the performances, and the events came and went from my mind without so much as a second thought.  But then I watched it again, having read up on the film and - basically - maturing as a movie watcher in the last five years or so.  Bug might be Friedkin's finest work since The Exorcist in 1973. 

I don't quite understand my initial reaction to the picture.  I have always enjoyed films based on plays (Glengarry Glen Ross) or films taking place in primarily one setting (Tape), so Bug seemed like the perfect blend.  I was just not receptive for whatever reason, but I digress.  Bug is a film about paranoia and the desire for people to share madness.  No matter how unstable a person might be, there is someone somewhere in this world who will stand side by side with them in their decent into madness.  Bug stars Ashely Judd as Agnes, a bartender at a small-town lesbian bar.  Agnes has an ex-husband, Jerry, an abusive monster fresh out of jail and as threatening as ever.  Agnes is lost in the world, aimless, and the sadness permeates her orbit.  So it makes sense when Peter Evans appears in her bar and captures her fancy.

Peter is a Gulf War veteran, and played by Michael Shannon you would never mistake him for a stable Vet.  Shannon - who played the same role in the stage version of the film - is a powerful, ominous presence in any film.  But here, as an unhinged military vet, he excels.  Peter is convinced the government has planted bugs beneath our skin for monitoring purposes.  It doesn't particularly matter the reasons, the who or the why.  It is all about the propaganda of Peter, and the was he captures Agnes in his web.  She is pulled in to Peter's insanity and begins slipping herself.

The thing is, Agnes never seems crazy at first.  She seems sad and lost and in need of a friend, and this is the key.  Sadness can create an avenue for insanity.  In a weak moment, Peter crept in to her consciousness, and when the two of them look beneath a microscope at things they think they see, and when the two of them begin picking obsessively at their own skin, you realize the power of Peter's conviction has absorbed the weaker Agnes.

The final twenty minutes of Bug are an intense and freakish decent into pure insanity, with Agnes and Peter creating a womb of aluminum foil and light that is as frightening as anything you would ever see on screen.  And as the film spirals downward into despair and certain madness, the performances of Shannon and Judd keep us captivated.  They are uninhibited roles pulled off to perfection, under the careful eye of an energetic and willing director.