Friday, August 29, 2014

Recommended!: Tempest (1982)

The directing accomplishments of John Cassavetes have such a powerful reputation that even when he appears as an actor in other filmmakers' work he seems to exert an auteurial pull. Indeed, Paul Mazursky seems to be counting on this in Tempest, his 1982 modernization of Shakespeare's final play. Casting Cassavetes as architect Philip Dimitrius (the stand-in for The Tempest's lead character, the magician/ousted duke Prospero) guaranteed an intense performance at the movie's center; casting Cassavetes' wife and longtime collaborator Gena Rowlands as Philip's wife Antonia offered Mazurky a direct tap into the power of Cassavetes' body of work. And what power it is.

Though Cassavetes' work as actor and director is rooted in years of stage work his films are deeply informed by improvisation, a connection to the immediate moment with little apparent influence of classical works. It's difficult to imagine Cassavetes initiating a project like Tempest, but damned if he doesn't give it his all. Cassavetes approaches the story of old age, anger, and forgiveness from a less lofty, more earthbound place than Shakespeare imagined, but the story resonates no less strongly for it. Propsero summons the storm with all of the literary might and effects the theatre can muster; in Tempest Cassavetes provokes it with delicate traces of his glasses and a gentle coaxing, to equally powerful effect. Even his climactic appeals for forgiveness eschew Shakespeare's poetry for a simple, gut-level "Forgive me" that carries volumes of tragic sincerity.

Mazursky's adaptation is startlingly faithful to Shakespeare's play, adhering to its structure (unfolding over the course of a single day, aided by flashbacks) and parallelling many of its scenes. Mazursky's cast are uniformly as committed as Cassavetes, and all reap similar boutnies, from Susan Sarandon's airy but knowing Aretha to Molly Ringwald's young but wise Miranda. Ringwald's performance in Tempest was her debut, and if she felt any pressure it doesn't show. Philip and Antonia's final, this-is-divorce argument is the kind of scene Cassavetes and Rowlands must have explored and executed countless times, but Ringwald brings her own music to the scene and impressively keeps at their level. (She's equally moving in her first scene with Sam Robards - the original Miranda/Ferdinand scene is one of the loveliest meet-cute scenes ever, and Ringwald and Robards' 1982 correlate, aided by underwater photography and Stomu Yamashta's achingly gorgeous score, does it more than justice.)

Earthy and idyllic, Tempest is a worthwhile trip. It dances to its own peculiar rhythms, approaching both Shakespeare and Cassavetes from angles not often seen, and fuses classical and modern artistic impulses into a splendid and ultimately moving whole.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Rohan re-enters Sin City

(UK-based Rohan Morbey blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself, and we're pleased to see him going against the disdain that is largely greeting Sin City: A Dame To Kill For.. We're delighted to repost his enthusiastic review, and hope you'll follow Rohan over on Twitter!)

Perhaps it was comic book movie fatigue; perhaps it was sequel fatigue; perhaps it was a feeling of cash grabbing now that comic book films are the money making machines they are; or perhaps it was the fact that Robert Rodriquez’ last film was utter trash, but for whatever reason I was not looking forward to Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. Then I rewatched the first movie again (for the first time in many years) in preparation for this sequel and I was reminded of just how great it was, and a renewed sense of optimism washed over me.

From the first scene Rodriguez and Frank Miller (co-director and creator of the comic book) had me right back in the mindset I was in when watching the 2005 original and they never let me down. If you liked the first film then you’re going to like this new film; I can’t see anyone being split on the two unless you’re being particularly critical or have had judgment impaired by the recent efforts from Marvel and Warner Brothers which seem to pass for good comic book movies today. I’m not usually one to forgive a director for making a sequel which barely progresses from the original in terms of style and content, but the simple fact is that
I’ve not seen a film so reliant on CGI which made my eyes pop and kept my cinematic mind spinning like Sin City: A Dame To Kill For since its predecessor nine years before.

The several storylines are again deeply rooted in noir; this time around each has a femme fatale, the titular dames to kill for. Miller’s screenplay is once again an homage to noir classics but always holds a modern edge which allows the film to be brilliantly violent and relentlessly bleak, yet blackly comic at times. The cast is pretty much perfect with Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, and the gloriously evil Powers Boothe slipping effortlessly back into character, and new additions Eva Green and Josh Brolin providing beauty and brawn respectively to the film’s best storyline. Bruce Willis’ return seems needless and serves only to have his name on the poster, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t given enough to work with in relation to his talent, but these are minor criticisms.

Sure, the film pretty much looks the same as the first outing with its stark black and white pallet, digital snow, blood, bullets, arrows, cars (and pretty much everything else which moves), splashes of vibrant color here and there, and it sounds the same with hard boiled dialogue, voiceover, and classic film noir soundbites, but it still works the second time around. What I liked about the first film I appreciate even more in this sequel; released in an era where PG-13 comic book adaptations rule the box office with an iron fist, here we have a comic book film made for adults, going hard R and never looking back. Even more graphically violent than the first film and filled with nudity throughout, this is the perfect antidote for anyone who wants ‘movie escapism’ but not at the cost of having everything look the same as what came out last week.

One aspect I feel compelled to mention is the 3D. Usually I try to avoid 3D screenings at all costs but as 3D was the only option, this is the version I was forced to see. With the exception of last year’s Gravity, I’ve not felt 3D has added anything to a screening I’ve seen until now; the film was shot in 3D which, at first I assumed was yet another cash grab, but the 3D adds a layer of depth which truly works in the world of Sin City and serves to enhance the false backgrounds, CGI sets, and artificial nature of the production. For the first time since 3D has become the norm post-Avatar, this feels like a comic book brought to life as a movie, not a movie merely based on a comic book and certainly not a gimmick. Maybe it’s partly to do with the black and white presentation where the film doesn’t suffer from losing so much of its color once the glasses go on, but the way Rodriguez uses the depth which 3D brings in his film is just how the technology should be used.

So go and see Sin City: A Dame To Kill For if you’re seeking an cinema experience where no punches are pulled, no corners are cut, the men are tough, the women gorgeous, and where the sin of the city is present in every scene. Not only is it the best comic book film of the year, it’s one of the year’s best big budget films, too. Expectations be damned, Rodriguez and comic book films are back on top form.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Rohan on The Rover

(UK-based Rohan Morbey blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself, and though he got to The Rover after its US run we fully agree with his assessment that it's one of the year's finest movies. We're delighted to repost his enthusiastic review, and hope you'll follow Rohan over on Twitter!)

The title card tells us we’re in ‘Australia, 10 years after the collapse’. Guy Pearce’s Eric sits in his car, a nondescript BMW, as the wind outside howls through the open desert landscape. The world outside the car is desolate, dry, and dust clings to the window like a reminder that it will never go away. When Eric leaves his car and gets a drink, another car loses control, crashes, and is stuck. The three men inside have guns, one is bleeding, and they need a car to keep going wherever it is they are going, or get further away from where they have been. Director David Michôd makes the outback look so harsh, scorching hot and unforgiving that we wonder if there is even a place worth going to out here.

What follows is a simple plot in which Eric, with the help of Ray (Robert Pattinson), the ‘half wit’ brother of one of the men who took Eric’s car and left Ray for dead, will stop at nothing to get his car back. The plot and story are not what makes Michôd’s The Rover a stunning film, but rather the film’s ability to keep us hooked on such a simple premise. What strikes you most about the film is the unrelenting bleakness of the world we are placed in and how violence is part of the nature of man. The film's post-apocalyptic setting is not a fantasy but aggressively real, and shot using actual landscapes rather than a blue screen background. Buildings which seem uninhabited are actually ‘stores’ where transactions for cash still take place even if US dollars are now the currency. A military presence roams the area but we never know on whose authority they work, or why they seek to take people ‘to Sydney’. And just what exactly ‘the collapse’ was and if it is a worldwide event is never known, but it happened and that, like all actions in the film, is that. There is no going back or hope for change as Eric, in the other men’s car, drives around from place to place asking questions (mainly “where is my car”) no one has answers to in a land where every man, woman, and child is left to fend for themselves.

The film's moral compass may be hard for some in the audience to get behind. The man whose journey we follow shoots people dead without hesitation and people get killed wherever he goes, all because he wants his car back. In many ways The Rover is a Neo-Western, a ‘man’s gotta do’ film where the lines between good and bad are blurred or simply do not exist (think of James Mangold’s Cop Land or Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia). But questions are always on our minds as to how far we can forgive Eric’s path of violence whilst knowing so little about him. A snippet of backstory is granted about two-thirds in but this only deepens the moral ambiguity of our support (if that even exists) for Eric; when we learn of the contents of his car we feel emotions in juxtaposition. With the bloodshed for this (no spoilers here) we wonder what and who he has seen fall by the wayside in the past ten years, and what else he has done.

The car is all Eric has. Without the car he cannot travel but stealing it has taken away much more than just that luxury; it’s taken away perhaps the last thing which defines him, and his aggression and anger become primal instinct. Moreover, Eric is like a feral animal out there in the outback, roaming the land in search, belong neither here nor there; the collapse has turned him loose, with no law, no authority to stop him.

Playing opposite Guy Pearce is Robert Pattinson as Ray, and their forced relationship is one of the most interesting pairings you may see this year. Both live ‘by the way of the gun’ but Ray has hope at first; hope for a reunion with his brother and hope that God’s love will prevail. By the end, Ray is out for revenge on the brother who left him for dead, Eric having helped him see there is nothing and no one out there, just a man apart. Pattinson is excellent as the simple young man but cannot quite hold his own against the fury Guy Pearce brings; perhaps the unbalance in performance power is all part of their dynamic.

The look of the film is beautiful in its simplicity, adding to the feel of the film being a chamber play where the characters are the focus, not famous monuments now buried in sand. Shot on a budget of around $12 million, the film does a great job of making the impact of the collapse present in every scene; Eric’s hair is patchy like he’s cut it with a knife because that’s all he can find, and his single costume is a dirty and sweaty shirt, cargo shorts, and running shoes. Which raises questions: where was he when the collapse happened? Was he literally left with the clothes on his back and the rest of his world annihilated?

There is simply nothing to like in The Rover and not a single character to get behind, but Eric and Ray are all we have and this challenges us in a way rarely seen in today’s cinema. I want to be challenged by a film and make up my own mind about how I feel about the events and who is doing what to whom. Like so many original, non-tentpole films, The Rover has been overlooked at the box-office despite the Pattinson factor and I suspect it will have to wait many years before it has the wide audience it deserves. I can only recommend you see it for yourself; you will not leave disappointed.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Truths in the Grindhouse

"How the hell is a shitty film like Johnny Mnemonic so goddamn prescient?" asked a Facebook friend yesterday.

The answer hit me somewhat quickly - the movie in question was a semi-independent movie from Neuromancer writer William Gibson. Teaming with Robert Longo, they'd originally sought to make an underground, super-low-budget affair from Gibson's short story. But they soon found that it was easier to get $30 million for their movie instead of the $1.5 million they'd originally imagined. That the movie was cut by its distributor makes a terrible kind of sense, considering the omnipresence of Gibson's corporate villains. And yet with artists like Gibson and Longo collaborating a number of ideas are perhaps inevitably going to resonate through any level of corporate mangling. (Or so I tell myself.)

I told my friend "Movies with less mainstream studio oversight are more able to delve into political/cultural truths." Which is not terribly apropos considering the butchering of Johnny Mnemonic, but I had other things and other movies on my mind when I tossed it out.

At times over the last several days it's been a struggle to come to work - with the events of Ferguson weighing so heavily on one's mind, driving eyeballs to a movie site seems like one of the least holy things one could do.The series of William Lustig movies unfolding, with director in attendance, at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, promised a break from the angst provoked by following events in Ferguson via Twitter (the only medium that seemed to offer a clear picture of what was really going down there).

Happily, though, escape isn't really what we got. Just the brazenness of the presentation of the entire Maniac Cop trilogy suggested an abundance of cheap thrills, but Lustig worked on those movies with writer Larry Cohen, whose own movies, cheap as they often were, never flinched from political realities. We were entertained, to be sure, by all of the funny dialogue, surprisingly spectacular fire stunts, horror film homages (to the Universal Frankensteins, among others), and the lively and warm commentary by Lustig himself. But all of us were nailed to our seats by a scene in which various New Yorkers were interviewed on television about their impressions of a killer cop on the loose: the white interviewees were astonished that such horrible things could happen, while the African-Americans interviewed offered a more grounded perspective: "You know cops like killing...that's why they cops." "Nowadays, I guess, they gotta shoot ya to get respect." It didn't take us out of the movie to hear such prescient commentary, but startling it was to hear our current political reality coming at us from the screen. Yet comforting too that Cohen and Lustig wouldn't shy away from the inherent truths of the story they were telling, that a couple of guys making movies for drive-in theatres would admit readily to truths that news organizations would try to avoid.

We go to movies for escape, certainly, wanting to enter another world for a couple of hours that ideally is different from our own. It helps. Other times, though, the movies reflect aspects of our own world back at us, addressing truths in ways that no other media does. Not for nothing do some people consider the cinema their church - we assemble as a community to share stories together that give us a context to understand our world and our lives within it. Even the grindhouse can be a church, because sometimes the cheapest, craziest movies are the only things we see that aren't bullshitting us. And that helps, too.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Rohan: Expendables 3: Disposable

(UK-based Rohan Morbey blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself, and sometimes gets a look at movies in advance of their US release. We're delighted to repost his advance word on the latest installment in Sylvester Stallone's Expendable franchise, which hits US screens tomorrow. Do follow Rohan over on Twitter!)

Watching The Expendables III, one can’t help but see the irony. In 2010, Sylvester Stallone rounded up a group of fellow action stars to give audiences what they always wanted to see, even if it was two decades too late: 1980s action gods Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Stallone himself sharing the same screen (with a few other C-List names added to make up the numbers). The film was fun, self-referential, über violent and filled with ‘old school’ action.

Fast forward four years and nearly $600 million at the global box office later, this third entry seems to have forgotten or ignored all the parts which made the first two films a genuinely fun, if totally disposable, experience. What was once a product of nostalgia has become an ‘event’ marketed like a Fast And Furious film, and where once we saw heads exploding in unabashed R-rated fun we are now left with below-par PG-13 action set pieces which depend on the CGI of a production twice this budget. In truth, this film is DOA.

Quite what Stallone, the mastermind behind this series, was thinking with the story and plot for this movie is anyone’s guess. The film attempts to turn Barney Ross (Stallone) into a fully realized character with a background, hidden past, and unresolved issues. Normally this would be a good thing for a third film in a series but The Expendables III is not the type of film in which to do it, and ‘more of the same’ would have been welcome here because cartoon action is all anyone wanted. Barney Ross’s background is of absolutely no interest to anyone and a lackluster revenge plot when one of the crew is nearly killed is both laughable and excruciatingly boring when the actor in question is incapable of showing anything resembling an acting range.

Furthermore, the film ditches the older guys in favor for a selection of ‘actors’ who wouldn’t even find themselves on the D-list, let alone be worthy of starring alongside Stallone in an action movie. The decision to include this younger crew over the older guys says to the audience ‘all you want to see is action, no matter who is on screen’ and that is a fundamental flaw. The film spends far too long recruiting the new members when no one cares about them; the reason we choose to see these films is for the charisma of the action icons, so why deny us this simple pleasure? The familiar team is restored for the final third, but the film’s desire to have it both ways simply doesn’t work.

“But what about the action?” I hear you cry, for action is, after all, the one thing which we want, regardless of story. The opening sequence wants to be like a James Bond opening but has no originality, stakes, or impact on us. Similarly the next set piece shows plenty of things blowing up because they can, but nothing here has any lasting effect; they seem to only be there because the next hour will be so dull. The final 30 minutes is the film’s only saving grace because it is non-stop explosions and carnage with each of The Expendables getting their moments to shine, but even this goes on far too long and suffers from the Michael Bay school of thinking where more means better. Perhaps they wanted to make up for the awful hour which proceeded it, but it’s of little comfort when all hope has been lost. You could watch the final 30 minutes in isolation and enjoy it, but as part of a two hour film, it’s nowhere near enough reason to see this film.

As for the stars who have joined this production, there is bad news and great news. The bad news is that Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer, and Wesley Snipes are wasted and serve only to have their names on the movie poster; if you’re looking to watch the film to see them then forget about it. The great news is that Mel Gibson is back on the screen and is by far the best thing about the movie; Gibson chews scenery as the bad guy and savors every moment even though you can tell he isn’t anywhere near the top of his game. It is sad to see Gibson reduced to the ‘boo-hiss’ evil man when he should be the star we’re rooting for; he has that leading man presence sorely missing from many of today’s leading stars. He’s the one star in this entire movie franchise who is better than this nonsense.

Even with lowered expectations The Expendables III is a massive let down. No one expected an action masterpiece here but a film as dull, predictable, and fun-free as this is unforgivable. It’s become everything it shouldn’t be and fails at nearly every turn and if it were not for Mel Gibson there wouldn’t be a reason to watch it.

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