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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, ├╝ber 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.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Recommended!: Ravenous (1999)

There's been some passionate discussion over on Twitter about the state of the female director, asking (quite rightly) why female filmmakers are so woefully underpresent in Hollywood and elsewhere. Even this deep into the 21st century we're still seeing very few movies directed by women getting much by way of release. The Twitter conversation, including the hashtags and , has been useful in spotlighting Hollywood hiring discrepancies and showcasing talent deserving wider recognition. And the hashtag has spotlighted specific works helmed by female directors, uncovering a number of mainstream and independent works well worth seeing.

It was less than a year ago that we lost British director Antonia Bird. She's created a solid body of work in movies and television, largely powerful social dramas that weren't afraid to embrace genre elements. Work like Priest and Face established her as a powerful storytelling force, but I suspect even those versed in her work saw Ravenous coming.

Ravenous is a compellingly gruesome modern-day Western, in which Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is punished for cowardice with an assignment to the distant and snowbound Fort Spencer. There he runs afoul of Colqhoun (longtime Bird collaborator Robert Carlyle), a mysterious loner whose tales of being ambushed conceal dark violence, and a powerful, all consuming hunger.

Given that the debate surrounding what female filmmakers are capable of is even necessary, I don't doubt that there are some who would be surprised that a female director would take on a project like Ravenous. It's a gripping, bloody, and violent piece with an all-male cast. And yet Bird goes deep into Ted Griffin's story, not flinching from its gruesome or mythic aspects. Though Bird denies that Ravenous is an intentional piece of anti-American propaganda, its correlation between cannibalism and Manifest Destiny is laid out quite explicitly. And the apocalyptic showdown between Pearce and Carlyle is harrowing and gripping, and pretty much defuses any notion that female directors can't handle fight scenes. (Indeed, they worked without a fight choreographer - among other things it's one of the best acted fight scenes I've ever seen.)

Though the movie is absolutely not for all tastes, Ravenous is a powerful little picture. An exciting piece of evidence to be entered into the debate over female filmmakers, that scores its points in that debate by simply telling its story, hitting all its bases, and, in the end, blowing you away.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

(Happy) Christmas in August

Kind of pleased to have seen what may be the bookends of the box office list, having seen both Guardians of the Galaxy and Joe Swanberg's Happy Christmas this last weekend. Amid all the hyperbole surrounding most summer blockbuster entertainments (including the shock & awe campaign promoting Guardians), that a homespun indie just shows up gently in a rep theatre, with no real campaign but a vibe of "hey, we got a movie here, you wanna see it?" makes one want to see it just by this modest contrast. Happy Christmas feels like a roadshow, wandering from theatre to theatre unfolding itself to any who seek it out.

That leisurely release pace is completely suited to Swanberg's movie, a relaxed affair that is, per Swanberg's usual process, largely improvised by its cast within a framed story. Happy Christmas concerns Chicago couple Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Swanberg), whose family life is disrupted by the arrival of Jenny (Anna Kendrick), Jeff's well-meaning but alcoholic and irresponsible younger sister. Kelly and Jeff have more than enough problems raising their 2-year-old son (Jude Swanberg) and struggling with creative endeavors and career/family demands, yet all of these problems head toward a kind of resolution, even as Jenny takes her first tentative steps toward responsibility.

Swanberg rose with the mumblecore movement in American indies, and Happy Christmas is very much of that school: an intimate, low-budget chronicle of white, middle class urban angst. It is a decidedly lo-fi affair, but its modest pleasures keep adding up, from Kendrick's immersion in Jenny (a rare Kendrick character who's not as smart as she is) to the warmth of Ben Richardson's 16mm cinematography to the uncanny rightness of Jude Swanberg's performance to the escalations of the cast's improvisations - scenes that feel like acting exercises quickly but smoothly lapse into something painful, suspenseful and joyously funny. Lynskey's a joy to watch in all of her scenes, quietly processing the audacity of Jenny's intrusions into her creative life and then startled to find some kind of purchase in Jenny's insane ideas. Lena Dunham glides in and out of the action like a celebrity guest at a jazz club, adding new shades and wit to every scene she joins. The novel the three women wind up writing together sounds joyously, spectacularly awful, and we're pretty sure you'll be dying to read it.

Happy Christmas is ideal counterprogramming amid the onslaught of summer movies, with all of its low-budget quirks giving it a real warmth lacking in most effects-driven summer spectaculars, and its improvisations lending a suspense absent in high-concept, lowest common denominator Hollywood movies-by-committee. And like any good summer movie, it even has a post-credits scene well worth sticking around for.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Rohan: Positive Words on The Zero Theorem

(UK-based Rohan Morbey blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself, and sometimes gets a look at movies well in advance of their US release. We're delighted to repost his enthusiastic review of Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem, which appears set only for a modest US release. Do follow Rohan over on Twitter!)

Terry Gilliam’s filmmaking career has produced a body of work of varied result, from the highs of a modern classic like Brazil to total misfires such as The Brothers Grimm and Tideland. But his a unique sense for storytelling and eye for visuals unlike anyone else are always guaranteed. As such, The Zero Theorem is everything we could want from a Terry Gilliam film and much more; it’s one the year’s best films.

The story is a familiar one but has that likable Gilliam lead (previously played by Jonathan Pryce, John Neville, and Robin Williams) which allows the audience to go along with the madness. Here that lead is the always great Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a computer hacker who is given the impossible task of proving that life has no purpose or meaning, or the ‘Zero Theorem’ as it’s known. Every day Qohen (who has to spell his name to everyone he meets) waits for a phone call to explain to him the meaning of life, but the call never comes, so he continues to tackle the Zero Theorem in a classic Gilliam visual; a large controller hooked up to a flat screen with ridiculous buttons and switches, which all produce fluorescent liquid data in bottles. The bottles are handed over to an arm behind a counter only for an empty bottle to be put in its place and off Qohen goes again. You have to see it to appreciate the genius vision Gilliam has created, my words do it little justice.







As the final part of his dystopian trilogy, following on from Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam takes on the world of social media and the ever-expanding desire for everyone to be connected all the time. ‘The Management’ which Qohen works for has cameras in every room and the technology and jobs seem without point or to exist only to besiege the users. When we’re in the real world (for some takes place in virtual reality) the film never allows Qohen or the audience a moment’s rest; coupled with Gilliam’s trademark off kilter angles and ability to make everything look so grand whilst man looks so small, it makes for an experience like no other you’ll see this year. The film, I think, echoes the director’s feelings towards modern life; "I’ve never been an actual Luddite," he once said "I don’t hate technology. I just hate the religion around it." No coincidence that Qohen lives in an old church...

I won’t pretend that Gilliam is out of his cinematic ‘comfort zone’ here, but as the master of sci-fi fantasy there’s no place I’d rather see him working. The Zero Theorem is hands down the most visually appealing film of 2014 (as of late July at least) and in the hands of any other director the film simply would not have the same charm; and ‘charm’ is the key word here for the film has an old fashioned feel to it, the type of movie which made Gilliam a recognizable talent and stand out from the rest. Everything in the film feels tangible, from Qohen’s home in the church to the manic streets of London which Qohen has to navigate each day, to the madcap workplace he hates so much. It’s only when we enter a virtual world that Gilliam’s style changes and the film becomes much calmer, but these scenes also hold a visual beauty all of their own.

Visual beauty is what The Zero Theorem has with acres to spare, and it s a true joy to watch and marks one of Gilliam’s very best films. Personally it’s my third favourite after Brazil and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and I think that speaks volumes about a director who has clearly not sold out or taken the easy money and always offers audiences something new. The film was overlooked in the UK and barely promoted, and it’s being released only on VOD in Canada; a very sad state of affairs for one of the best sci-fi movies you could hope to see; and if my review encourages just one person to see the film, then all of Qohen’s hard work wasn’t all in vain.

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