Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Streaming Now - DREDD(2012) : 5 Reasons Why Missing It In Theatres Was A Mistake

Boy, did we really let genre cinema down last year.

 When the modestly budgeted DREDD 3D was released to theatres with something of a lightweight, 3D-centric ad campaign, so many of us dismissed this new take on the 2000 AD classic without heeding the ravings of many a lucky viewer. And even as it has become something of a home video hit, the welt of so many of us not heading out to support this grungy, pared-down actioner has yet to heal. And now that it is streaming for all to see via your friendly neighborhood Netflix, we have zero excuse.

Still not convinced? Well here are some really big reasons for why this pretty much obliterates memories of the mid-1990s piece of Mouse-produced malady.,

5. No Origin. No Problem.

One of the biggest pieces of storytelling that has come to plague recent comic book adaptations, is a near-mindless reliance upon retelling the origin stories of characters that are best explained through their actions. Dredd is the kind of "product of his environment" character that is best explored on a move, and Karl Urban's take on the character is well handled by a script that is comfortable enough in its own skin to just let things play out. From the opening scene, he is on the job, and despite the fact that we never see his face, we gather enough to understand that he is the very ideal of what his society has become. Cold, detached, all business, and unexpectedly laced with a hint of sadness. Once we are in the thick of the action (which is right from the getgo), the film never lets up, and allows us to view him from multiple angles by way of his trial-day rookie partner, Psy. Judge Anderson(Olivia Thirlby). It's a device that has been used in many adaptations before, but here, we have a thematic one-two punch served within a deceptively simple action setup.

4. The Power Of Simplicity.

By setting a majority of your film in a confined space ( in this case, a skyscraper-sized apartment complex), your film is allowed to make the absolute best out of a limited budget. Strangely enough, my initial impressions of the film took me back to my childhood, and the stripped down favorites I grew up with. That's right, much of Dredd is ostensibly a John Carpenter-esque piece of hardcore. With the judges trapped inside a building, surrounded by hapless tenants, as well as an army of gang members toting some serious hardware, there is an almost reverse Assault On Precinct 13 air about the film.(It doesn't hurt that the pulsating electronic score by Peter Leonard-Morgan evokes mental images of Assault, and even Cameron's original Terminator) And even as many make parallels to Gareth Edwards' The Raid, there is an astonishing amount of attention to detail, and imagery here that perfectly compliments the nasty side of this dystopian hell in which these characters reside. Old saws truly do apply to this instance, as the film plays it wholly straight, and without terrible one-liners or a desperate need to over explain. It does what it does, and will not make excuses.

3. Frightening & Fascinating Villainy

It's pretty hard to make a mark with an action vehicle heavy, but Lena Headey does so with the assured poise of a pro. Her "Ma Ma", is a broken, terrifying piece of work. A one-time working girl, who has seen far too much, and can only see a bloody way out of a life of pain. Even as the film rarely makes caveats for us to feel sympathy considering her often vile acts, there is a tragedy to her overall speech, posture and gait that imply far more than is on the page. It's pretty clear that her more recent life as gang leader, and possible future kingpin has been one of sheer survival. And she will resort to anything to maintain her standing - even murdering innocents. All in the name of saving what small piece of the city she has attained for herself. It's a remarkable, sneaky performance that adds surprising depth to the themes that hover ever-so carefully around the siege narrative.

2. Themes Of Perception Vs. Desperation

One of the movie's most unexpected elements, is perhaps a favorite of mine in that Dredd himself as an icon of intensified moral authority, is placed under just as much a symbolic microscope as the villains. In fact, I wonder if that was perhaps the entire goal this time around with Danny Boyle's occasional collaborator, Alex Garland on the screenwriting duties. There is much to be mined here through the eyes of rookie Judge Anderson, who goes into the fray without a helmet, and soon is reminded of her own background as an impoverished child - unfettered by the cynicism that seems primed to absorb every single person in Megacity One. She sees all sides of the conflict cornered into a world of binaries. She sees the questions lingering all about the bursts and the blood, and becomes the human center of the piece. There is even a representative on Ma Ma's side in the form of an appointed security monitor, who is clearly doing this out of fear of death - or worse. In a society that has been pushed into a world of black and white, oversimplified "right" versus "wrong", there is only carnage. When all is assessed, it is Anderson who might very well represent an unspoken quantity in a world obsessed with fighting over scraps of the dead. She is the eyes of what has been lost, and hopefully represents a more even-handed future. Not bad for a movie rife with almost balletic gore & bloodshed.

1. A Truly Adult Action Piece

We are living in the era of the PG-13 action film. Sad to say, but this carries a lot of truth. We have been lulled into expecting most action fare to either cater to teens, or to adults with lessened visual and thematic raucousness. (IE - lessened visceral impact) Thank goodness to director, Pete Travis, and company for sticking to their guns and delivering a rarity outside of straight to video fare; a mean and nasty action film with thought and vision to spare. A wild reminder of just how good movies like this can be when made in the hands of inventive and resourceful craftspeople, looking to reclaim what has become a long lost genre relative. Marketing can only be blamed so much. The rest is always..on us.

Nice to sense that relative around, even if for a little while.

Again. It's now at Netflix

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The World's End (2013) Movie Thoughts

One time would-be high school legend, Gary King hasn't changed.

A relic of the late 1980s-early 1990s, a near-mid-life King is suddenly infused with a zealous passion to seek out his long-since distanced buddies in hopes of "getting the band back together", and traveling away from London, to quiet Newton Haven. The mission: finishing an epic-sized pub crawl with minds(and perhaps bladders) intact. Problem? Unlike his more successful friends, Gary is seen to have quite a problem with not only addiction, but an almost toxic reliance on nostalgia to fuel him on. Still donning black clothes, as well as his old Sisters Of Mercy regalia, his life has seemingly been on pause for more than two decades. Now more invested in reliving the past than ever, things take a sinister turn when not only have the once lived-in comforts of Newton Haven given way to a homogenized shell of its former self, but the locals seem to be acting more than a little..well,..mechanical. Nothing ever stays, which seems to be high on the minds of older cineaste comrades, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg & Nick Frost as they bring their so-called Cornettos Saga full circle.

Fair warning, unlike the style and gag heavy openings of both Shaun Of The Dead, and Hot Fuzz, The World's End takes on what many might consider to be something of a methodical departure. Gone from the film's prologue sequences are the rapid fire editing, as well as a frenetic energy that punctuated those previous. And what comes about in its stead, is more akin to a truly squirm heavy setup involving Gary's drive toward rallying up the boys for this singular night of liver devastation. From seeking out his mousy, unusual buddy/ son of a car dealer, Pete(Eddie Marsan), to digging up his old musician buddy in arms, Steven(Paddy Considine), signals immediately fly above that things had long been buried in the past, with the hopes that they would stay as such. This is made even moreso upon his visit to his nervous, dressed to sell real estate pal, Oliver (Martin Freeman), where the tension begins to reach taut proportion. The back and forth between Gary and his long lost mates paints a troubling picture of his relationship to the man he most perceived to be his best..Andrew. So when time finally comes for Gary and Andy (Frost, now a corporate lawyer) to catch up, it's pretty solid that a rift between them has festered for some time. There's no doubt here that this once stalwart partner has now seen life well beyond that of Gary's incessant need for near infantile notions of freedom, and will hear of none of these impulses anymore. The rhythm of these scenes whilst still funny and observant, contain with them a queasy quality that has up until now been in carefully patched corners of the previous films.

 It is as if there is a deep need for Pegg, Frost, and Wright to look into a darker abyss than they had been privy to before. In fact, the one most likely culprit for this stylistic feint is to capture the vibe of oh so many popular UK films of the 1990s centering on elder men reaching into the past to feel vibrant once again. So when it comes to the boys here, and the legendary Golden Mile gone awry, it all feels natural.

And yet, despite the weirdness that welcomes them on their alcohol-laden quest, this only seems to bolster Gary's drive to complete it, all the way to the eighteenth local bar known only as The World's End(because after a sudden altercation with the machine-like humanoids, perspective must chime in). Dragging Andy, Peter, Oliver, and Steven along the way in hopes of not looking too conspicuous, the fights and chases begin coupling one upon another until either these once good friends are assimilated, or just plain torn apart.  It is roughly around this section of the piece, that the recognizable Edgar Wright signatures begin in true earnest. His flare for symbolic, stealthy comedy, and blistering action (largely courtesy of choreographer, Brad Allen who also worked with Wright on Scott Pilgrim) is in full force as the crew takes on a familiar looking run across town in hopes of surviving the night. And all the while, Andy (now a water-drinking teatotaler) fumes at what has become of his one-time friend. This is made all the more complicated as we come to learn of how matters had come to such a sorry state. Soon, it becomes a dual race of sorts; one between our protagonists, and the town, and the other between Andy versus Gary's fleeting sobriety.

And if this isn't enough, matters are tangled even further when Oliver's sister, Sam (Rosamund Pike) visits the boys, only for us to discover that old feelings truly die hard. (And with our lead finding himself unable to shift out of high school mode, matters are made marginally more awkward.) With the introduction of Sam, we are now witness to greater examinations of Gary's stunted nature. When she delivers what is some of the film's most telling dialogue to the face of a man so desperate to hold on to what has clearly past, it's both funny and unquestionably painful. Akin to growing pains long avoided.

All part of a buildup to a finale that may come as a shock to some ready for more of the same zaniness we have come to expect from these movies. When everything comes to a head here, it truly does come out swinging, bloody knuckles and all. And it's especially tricky to pull such a thing off when considering that all three films exist in completely unique universes. We have grown to laugh and love the two main stars, and do not wish for something like this to happen between them. And that is exactly what Wright is going for, as it becomes more and more apparent, that this is possibly the most personal of the three films. That this is about the worst parts of our current generation of adults, and how susceptible this perhaps makes us unto almost Starbucks-sipping pod-people living in a dot-commified Appleverse.

Perfect for a finale involving the nature of temporal shifting, the robot-like villains of the piece represent another form of extreme that the previous movies had yet to explore. Unlike the hyperviolent armies of zombies, and rabid conservatives of the last two, there is an eerie prescience to all that are these mysterious, blue-blooded automatons. An obvious jab at the recent spate of globalized lifestyle marketing and architecture, it makes for the perfect adversary for everything that Gary stands for, even if he had never considered it in any real sense before. This stabs at the heart of all three films, as they are bound by viewing growth as something that can so easily go off the rails if bound by any extreme amount of activity/inactivity. It seems that in the years since SPACED!, and near nine years since Shaun (Hard to believe that as fact at this point), Wright & Pegg specifically seem particularly alarmed at an England that is being lost in a cacophony of cultureless artifice, often in the guise of a benevolent new infrastructure. Almost a modern spin on the Body Snatchers mythos, while the most ordinary of us both ready for change, but not enough to warrant facile, cattle-like servitude.

But the film's biggest, most effective weapon is in its cast, and how well everyone handles the madness from slow-burn to full tilt apocalypse. The most potent surprises being Marsan and Considine, who embody both classic chum archetypes, and infuse them with a sensitivity and sense of real longing that only gives the whole chase a great amount of juice. Marsan's Peter is a quintessential underdog, teeming with his life long written in for him, and an unexpected amount of trauma that sneaks out in even the most absurd sequences. And Considine's Steven, while having something of a more relaxed life, is one of unrequited feelings, and a chance to seal something that has long been neglected while Freeman's Oliver, is a great parody of the definitive modern man, complete with earpiece,perfect hair, and a strange utterance to all the weird that surrounds them. And when Pike comes along for the ride, she becomes something of a center for the bunch, a character that could be more on the page, but is just enough to deliver some great emotional weight for the other.

And all of this is great backup band work for what is easily the most challenging work Pegg and Frost have done on film thus far. One of the most unique phenomena surrounding the films they have made with Wright, is how they can wildly juggle wild, referential farce, and still find room for human drama and thematic density. And this is largely due to the natural chemistry that so many have grown to appreciate over the years. So when the two decide to play characters that are easily the most empathy-challenged they have played to date, it becomes crucial that there is a careful set of reveals throughout the running time in order to pull everything off. It has to be virtually mathematical, and somehow, Wright has done justice to these performers by creating something that is not only funny, and energizing, it is also appropriately moving. It's a long friendship taken to an illogical edge, and it is terrific work.

Taking a close look at what director Edgar Wright has been slowly constructing over his last decade plus worth of film and television work, one might see the vision of an individual not merely caught up in the minutiae of popular culture. His films are not mere exercises in pop culture revelry. Even as a lot of what led to what we know of him though his films seem littered with reverence to genre works of a specific generation, there is also a great amount of effort made to best understand the things that make this generation tick, for better or for worse. Especially in the works he has written along with Pegg, it tends to seek this wild balance between knowing the landscape, and questioning what allowed it to shape in the first place. And with World's End, we are host to the most harrowing side of this conundrum. Where a yearning for balance is prime, and that perhaps a small manner of sloth may well be the key to figuring out more colorful solutions. With the tale of Gary & friends in Newton Haven, matters are drawn to a close in a mostly sure-handed manner. If it finds itself in any trouble, it is in the final reel, where it becomes unclear as to where the ideas might just be coming from outside the personal.

And while this means the Three Flavor Cornettos has come to an emotionally satisfying, often deeply funny close, something tells me that the trio of Wright, Pegg, and Frost will have plenty more to share with us in due enough time. There seems to be far too much creative juice left in these guys to stop now. If anything, The World's End feels like a herald to a whole new stage in the careers of these three, and I can't wait to see what's to come.

(Oh, and one more thing. Pub names as chapter stops is a pretty fun idea. Should make for another terrific easter egg for when the Blu-ray comes around.)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Bellflower (2011) Movie Brief

Taking a brief detour into fiercely indie territory, it was with great anticipation that I was able to finally catch Evan Glodell's hellish ride through northern Los Angeles, BELLFLOWER, and it truly lives up to the near two-years worth of talk that had surrounded it.

Whipped together on an absurdly small for its results 17,000 dollars, the film follows Woodrow (Glodell, in a raw performance) and Aiden(Tyler Dawson) , a pair of traveling brothers from Wisconsin who decide to move to the west coast as they hone their penchant for engineering apocalyptic motor vehicles. Both boys are intensely enamored with the 1981 George Miller classic, The Road Warrior, the pair seek to live life freely whilst creating perhaps the ultimate in wasteland transport. Their stop to live in a less than normally tended to suburb of the LA hills, becomes a center for great inspiration, and ultimately tragedy, as both find themselves entranced by a pair of locals. The seemingly more shy Woodrow finds himself almost instantly in love with the unpredictable, and fearless Milly(a terrific Jessie Wiseman) , while the more daring and often obsessive Aidan fawns quietly over her pal, Courtney(Rebekah Brandes). And even as the first half of the film implies a fly-on-the-wall romantic drama of the handheld variety, it is merely prelude to what becomes something of a shared worst case scenario. Not only do these tangled relationships threaten the boys' original vision of purpose, but of everything anyone here holds dear.

Flashing forward in time, and even into alternate resolutions and perhaps false realities, Glodell's achievement here is evident in just how assured and adventurous he and his crew are in making this one disorienting ride. Even in the craft displayed in the machines being utilized in the story, there is an immediate feeling that what we are dealing with here is a work in the hands of those unafraid to take what little was on hand and make something capable of making a deeply ingrained burn.

While one can up and dismiss much of this film as a tale of grizzled hipster angst, there is indeed more going on underneath the heat-saturated visuals. As interested in seeking how a lesser seen quantity lives, it is also excited to dive headlong into the lives of those who have left behind a more modern, structured path, and into a life of anticipated anarchy - despite the suburban milieu around everyone. It is almost as if the brothers do not even see the domestication that is ready to consume them if they stay too long. With BELLFLOWER as sanctuary slowly dissolving into a self imposed Hades, we catch Woodrow's perhaps lingering wishes for earthly wants, as Aiden's dependence upon his other half to make good on their quest to ride out the end. And while a lot of the film goes from uncomfortable to outright gut-wrenching, it is truly hard to deny what has taken place here. 

Blistering in it's visuals, presentation, and performances, this is a singular piece of first timer work that burns promise into the eyes and mind like so few debuts ever do. It dares us to peer harder into the minds of the driven, only to see ashen embers at the laps of those prone to detours..

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Sadako (3D, 2012) Movie Findings

Oh dear..

In the annals of filmdom, there often comes a time when a character makes such a deep impression upon the global stage, that it inevitably becomes a matter of business to continue resurrecting them. This is especially demonstrable when regarding the horror world. And this came about long before the Jasons or Michael Myers' of the neighborhood. The people love a good villain to project their daily fears onto, as well as their own frustrations, and in a horror antagonist, there is often seen a chance to dance with our darker tendencies for another 90s minutes in prepackaged, often diminishing sensations. Far from the initial spark that resonated so well with audiences, it becomes something of a dog and pony act, where the aforementioned monster finds themselves replicated once again, only to lose impact, and become something more akin to something almost safe and cuddly.(and unquestionably financial) How does this happen? Simple. Shock, is something based largely upon our inability to comprehend, and once this is undone by way of repetition, the initial reactions are eventually dulled out like an overused knife. It simply lacks any of the sharpness, the shine, or the mystery that it once may have possessed in order to penetrate our best defenses.

Enter Sadako 3D (Or in the Netflix titling scheme, Sadako), a long belated return to the Ringu franchise that once sailed high as the flagship of Japan's horror boom of the late 1990s. And when we last saw our favorite vengeful spirit, she had been haunting and killing by way of a VHS cassette which cursed any of of its viewers who watched it. The only way to quell this poor girl's wrath, was to either consecrate her, or to pass the tape along in an endless game of killer chain action. Flash forward to the digital era, where streaming video has now become the vessel of choice. And the twisted actions of a male J-pop reject may have disturbed the long-haired menace, sending her back to invade the world of the living once again. Filmed in colorful digital, and originally made for 3D screenings in Japan, Sadako is the very representation of a franchise on artificial life support. But among the strangest things about this Nakata-free entry in the series, is in how much it embraces the tech of now, but seems dead set on sending the three dimensional gimmick back several decades. (More on this soon.)

Satomi Ishihara, is Akane Ayukawa, a teacher of a catholic high school runs afoul of the latest keitai trend, a "Cursed video" that causes suicides to occur to all who find it. As students of her class find themselves dead, and the video seems to be quite legitimate, Akane and local detectives must seek the source before the legendary S returns, ready to wreak greater havoc than ever before. Making matters worse, is that Akane bears a secret past that might just be the key to making this return one the world may never forget. In all, the film is a goofy riff on what has long already been a J-horror staple, which is the "haunted" piece of technology or media. This is where either a video, song, or message via cel phone is an invitation to terror towards mostly young, often clueless technophiles. And with such a tired premise to rely on, the 3D element seemed to be the next logical hook.

You know your franchise is dead when guys like this are to blame.

And, boy. How more capitalistic and mercenary can this possibly be?

This is a piece so obvious. So bald-faced about its intentions, that it almost becomes charming in how it doesn't even bother with pretense as to where things leap out at the audience or why. There is even a 3D jump scare at the opening, that seems to have zero lead up, or context. And why? Because the makers simply do not care. And this lack of care seems to pop in at often strange, inopportune moments. Almost as if to imagine producers looking down upon the makers with a simple, "We paid you good money to give the people what they want. Give it to them! And do it now! Do you think we're making art here?" It knowingly is an unrepentant, prepackaged tourist trap ride, bad candy apples and all. And not all beneficial to what could have been. In fact, there was a genuine chance to finally have real fun with the mythos, and yet this is what we get when investors and filmmakers lack a sense of humor about endless repetition. This is a film that so badly wishes to be a good looking piece of pop silly, but is constantly undercut by a need to make quota. That's right. Where Nakata & Verbinski found themselves an unexpected amount of heart underneath all the creep, this is as manufactured and cold as franchise filmmaking ever gets. And it doesn't help that we are talking an Amityville 3D level of dopeyness in regards to everything on display here. Heck. The film doesn't even really bother with creating a compelling new video with which to introduce new viewers to a major selling point of the original. In so many ways, it seems dead set on being everything Ringu, but in name.

Also amusing, is how much the whole affair seems happy to advertise streaming services like Nico Nico Douga, as well as destroying iPhones. Like a Murakami prophecy, the commoditization level in Sadako could be considered borderline satirical if it were only so aware.

Or perhaps it is..

"Artificial? But everything in this world is artificial." - Possibly the most telling line in the film.

This is a film, where the makers know full well what manner of movie they are making, who their audience is, and yet have no base understanding of how to utilize the 3D in a story sense. And even after all that has been said, this is surprisingly watchable, if only in some morbid sense. It's just a shame that for a film that flirts with being a toss between a Dream Master, and even The New Blood, there's a general lack of either passion for the earlier films, or an ironic sense of fun to make it more than it is, which is a dumb, occasionally nice looking distraction. To think that original Ringu novelist, Koji Suzuki would have sold out his character to this degree with his S book, and help on the screenplay is just depressing.

It's a shame too, taking the teeth out of a character that once had a significant hold on so many of us years ago. Now she has been rendered about as scary as the Hamburglar.

Okay. I take that back. The Hamburglar still kind of scares the crap out of me.

But Sadako 3D, is the movie equivalent to a Happy Meal; Base, colorful, and perhaps capable of holding cement foundations together..

Apologies might just be in order.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

ELYSIUM (2013) Movie Findings

In the late 21st Century..

The earth has become a polluted, diseased catastrophe. And as a result, the rich and powerful have evacuated the planet to an orbital colony where their lives of prosperity and technologically enhanced mortality may continue.

As for the rest of humanity..

Neil Blomkamp's big budget return is an aggressive, heavy-handed and ultimately satisfying voyage into the nadir of western civilization. The very idea that the man who helmed the modestly funded dystopian underdog work, District 9, would go on to expand upon many of the same concepts with a significant sheen, and succeed as well as this remains pretty astonishing. Gone are the almost script-free bursts of madness, and unerring use of handheld. This is a grand peek into Blomkamp making grand entrance into the world of fiercely studio filmmaking, and coming out swinging, indie streak intact.

ELYSIUM tells the tale of Max, a robot factory worker with a spotty criminal past who finds himself forced to rethink what remains of his dreams when he is poisoned with radiation during a work accident. Having grown up an orphan who continuously dreamed of one day living amongst the dreamlike enchantments of that oh so glimmering goal in the sky. A man so willing to tow the line after doing several years in prison, this accident bolsters Max into returning to the shady underworld in hopes of getting himself a ticket to ELYSIUM, where illegals (IE- anyone not of opulent birthright) have often attempted to shuttle their way (to occasionally disastrous results). Now saddled with only five days left to live, a just recent encounter with his long lost best friend, and a dearth of options, Max is tasked with pulling a dangerous data heist with a small team. And when this inevitably goes horribly awry, leaving him on the run from a dangerous trio of vicious mercenary-types, a sequence of events unfolds that could very well affect both haves and have-nots. But not without a great deal of bloodshed first.

Even from that description, one can surmise that Blomkamp is in no way interested in subtleties. This would be an understatement. While this is in no way Tolstoy, there is a richness to his worlds that speak in ways that his pacing often does not. Which is a potent thing to consider as his vision of a planet-sized sprawl is both terrifying, and impressively tactile. His futuristic Los Angeles is a nightmare vision that could so easily be seen in many a neglected metropolitan area on Earth today. Streets and structures in tatters, often strewn with decay, garbage, and even overgrowth. This is how the world catches up with D9's Johannesburg shantytown. Life is an utter misery, and it is clearly understandable why someone like Max would resort to what he had in his past. But he so badly would rather not, and in attempting to live up to what remains of society, he finds himself back to square one - but with incentive this time. Meanwhile, the citizenry of ELYSIUM find themselves surrounded by sculpted beauty, both natural and constructed, in a symphony of human achievement. A place held in such esteem (often to the longing of many looking above from the Earth) , that those tasked with protecting it will take any measure at their disposal to to do so.  

Enter ELYSIUM's Secretary of Security Delacourt (Jodie Foster), a woman of stature and intelligence who sees herself as the colony's first and final line of defense. Unafraid to kill often innocent women and children to achieve her goals, Delacourt is even seen as problematic to the habitat's President Patel (Faran Tahir). Even as gears are in motion to reprimand Delacourt for her methods, she is soon harboring plans of her own in the name of maintaining what she sees as an ocean of necessity. And this also means keeping mangy private security specialists such as Agent C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley, in a truly menacing turn), an expert tracker, and an obvious psychopath. With allegiances splintered even amongst those in charge of maintaining the status quo, Delacourt represents the nasty side to this most glaring example of disparity.

And as Max's tale goes from woeful to desperate, the film swiftly careens into a familiar, yet no less impactful exploration into some very real problems plaguing our world today. Blomkamp having grown up around the sadness and desperation of economic disparity, sees no need to play matters down and simply applies the same no-holds-barred approach here as he did in 2009. He even goes so far as to explore the world of the deep underground, even to the grit and grime of pure homegrown resistance. When options for making a living are so miniscule, and the health levels are so toxic, technology becomes the next best way to have any manner of advantage in this torn up world.

Enter Spider(Wagner Moura)..Seemingly well connected smuggler, but more of a would be resistance leader and tech wizard extraordinaire. While his methods border on questionable, there is no doubt a great concern in him for the people he sees as deserving of better treatment (IE- everyone). And his proposed plan (to extract delicate security data from the mind of Max's former CEO, and until recently disgraced corporate go-between, John Carlyle, played by that always terrific "middle-man", William Fichnter) seems so insanely grand, that Max's initial instinct is to walk. (But considering the alternative..) As Spider, Wagner Moura creates a truly memorable hybrid of sleazy and deceptively undignified. A man of foggy morals, he is perhaps one of the film's biggest surprises as he finds himself further and further locked into the center of the conflict between the desperate and the seemingly immortal.

Having lived near East LA for a time now, there is a fascinating amount of real world texture to this film that feels both feral and quite at home. And despite the advanced tech we see throughout the film, again it is all treated as lived in and often left about for only those crazy enough to use them. It is to the point that so many in Max's world seem well broken into this mode of living that one could either live on their knees, or fight back in often the craziest ways possible. Blomkamp again proves that his particular world building voice is so studied, so stark, that it perhaps deserves its own moniker. The production design work by longtime collaborator, Phillip Ivey is singular at this point. Often interweaving the State Of The Art with the State Of The World, ELYSIUM is the ultimate expression of a continuous thread he has been playing with since his early days, producing uniquely strange pseudo-science fiction shorts. From Max's casual use of spanish, to the often worn out feel of the environs and the people who inhabit the earth, the film is unafraid to embrace reality as a vital part of the director's complete vision. As he has said before in interviews, this is not simple science fiction, this is what he truly sees in our world. And it is both hellish and beautiful in its brazen honesty. It is not a place I would ever wish to leave to the future..

But what does Blomkamp bring that is new to this souped up remix? Most egregiously, a potent fable about what we plan to do for future generations when all that is left, is to hide behind walls in fear of a "boogeyman" named reality. Summed up by both Delacourt's concerns as to whether or not President Patel has children of his own, to the revelation that Max's newly reunited childhood friend (Alice Braga) now has a child of her own with a serious health condition, much of the film is not obfuscating its intended messages. Also, he often lushly expands upon his fetishism for humanoid machinery, not to mention his love for put-upon characters, and the occasionally shocking moment of grue. There is even some biting satire involving the machinery the powerful have left upon the world in order to delegate what they may consider to be tasks that are "less than desirable". From POLICIA droids, to Max's parole officer, there is some truly dark humor at work here, and I'm still kind of shocked to see it in a 99 million dollar summer production.  (And, yes. Aware that the film had been pushed back from a 2012 release. Still. )

The performances here are almost uniformly terrific as Max's voyage allows us to meet more than a few memorable characters. Even as Copley's deeply disturbing, Kruger impresses with his zero compass and sheer audacity, it is Moura's Spider that really shines as a man who has long found himself embracing the so-called "bad guy" role, and now finds himself embroiled in something he never once dreamed was possible. A chance for true, across the board change. Braga is also terrific as the childhood friend who inspires the best in Max, even as the worst only seems to pile on. She receives some of the roughest physical and emotional ride throughout the film, and she handles it with an almost frightening amount of ease. And while Damon himself isn't really asked to reach too far as Max, there is just enough here for viewers to invest in. He's not an action hero type. None of this feels remotely ideal for him, and so much comes out as if by pure survival instinct, which he seems long attenuated to. If there is anywhere else where the film falters, its in that we never really get a full kaleidoscope of our lead, but the performance is complex enough to have some heft. 

In many ways, it is a blunt force evolution of the worlds once illuminated by directors such as Paul Verhoeven. And while we are talking trailblazing genre wizardry, if Blomkamp is this era's equivalent to a homegrown genius such as Sam Raimi, then ELYSIUM may just be his DARKMAN.  A refinement of all that has come before. (and yet no less venomous towards the inequities of the day) Like an expertly carved hint at the mindful wildness that is yet to come, Max's story is the only mildly distilled commercial echo to D9's raw battle cry.

In all, this is a lush, blunt, occasionally over edited, but well executed follow-up to what was easily one of my favorite films of 2009. When matters heat up in this piece, it hardly gives the audience room any to breathe. By the point the characters find themselves at a point of no return, and the situation has fallen into utter chaos, the seething emotional drive of the film is unmistakably Blomkamp. There is no question that the issues that pulsated through the heart of his previous feature, have in no way diminished. He is still ready to use genre as a weapon, and seems as brazen as ever to wield it in what is on its surface a down and dirty action tale. From immigration, to health care, to private security, this movie is not out to make friends, and we are meant to be participants. An often thrilling exercise in re-contextualizing our collective need for escapism is at the heart of ELYSIUM's grim, immediate vision, and more often than not, it's a greatest hits album with unrestrained bite.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Bay (2012) Movie Thoughts

Talk about one of the great career hard lefts of all time...

If you had told me that longtime lauded filmmaker, Barry Levinson would take the often youthful path of taking on the horror genre. Crazier still, that he would take on the verite horror movement to weave a tale of human borne ecological wrath! Enter the tale of Claridge, Maryland. Your classic bay side Americana town where the community's annual 4th of July festivities are about to be marred by a long gestating terror in the local waters. Through the eyes of numerous parties and individuals, the day's descent into environmental disaster is compiled into what is mostly an effective little fright machine with more than a few nasty things to say about a cam-centric America. One of the biggest surprises of The Bay, is in how it incorporates numerous forms of video media in the form of an underground expose of the events compiled in an almost television special format. In a sense, it takes the thrust of Josh Trank's entry, Chronicle, and hits matters on hyperdrive by mixing "found" footage from numerous sources, sprinkled with ominous information seeded from both the scientific and activist community, aware that something was amiss long before things went haywire.

We are given a primary face in the confessional video from a local university intern who was on site that morning. Young Donna Thompson's (Kether Donohue) words are our main thread as we weave in between her commenting on the compiled footage, as well as clips of herself quickly being thrust from would-be event reporter to the unwitting face of Claridge as it is turned inside out by an unspeakable invasion likely brought about by political neglect. Early on, she begins to take events on as if they are of a more domestic nature. But it isn't long before the symptoms of illness set up shop, and the bodies begin to pile up, rendering this beyond anything the town could ever hope to handle. With hindsight, her looking back at all that had transpired that day offers up something that the film's footage isn't so ready to do, which is to offer a faux documentary sheen over matters which is welcome in some respects, and unnecessary in others.

And from Donna's confessions, the film also grants us several more perspectives..From the local mayor who may very well be the most to blame for this fiasco, to a pair of oceanographic researchers who might have figured out the threat weeks before, and ultimately a couple of young professionals venturing on a boat to Claridge to see the wife's family-- with a newborn infant in tow. Also caught amongst the growing chaos, are the local law enforcement, a fifteen year old girl using iPhone's FaceTime app to detail her infection's progress, a lone doctor at the town's now infection- swarmed hospital, and even a bewildered team at the CDC. There is a great amount of effective interweaving of images, soundbites, and authenticity on hand as the problems star off on a level that never feels too far from realms of possibility. But when the film finally reveals the core "antagonists", it all does eventually become another horror piece. And while that might seem like cause for concern, Levinson does come up with just enough mood here to leave viewers with the squirms for days.

You'll never look the same way into a fish while cleaning one again..

The most chilling prospect that the film espouses is in regards to the increasingly wired world of cameras and internet video, where the greatest irony lies in just how much more distant we have become in reaction to all of it. If there are any places where contention comes up, this is it. And while one can indeed make the oft-made argument that a wired world, is a more divided, and often disconnected one, there comes a certain point where it all feels a bit forced for the sake of the theme. This all comes to a head of course, when we finally receive word from government officials which is meant to be the film's greatest condemnation. And it comes in such a "too little, too late" fashion, that one might almost be tempted to quote the mayor from Jaws, albeit after the fact. And yet despite all this, there are some pretty effectively eerie moments in the midsection that less involve what the cameras see, and rather what they do not, leaving our imaginations to run wild, which is always a plus. 

The film even takes several potshots at the camera-centric world to be far more interested in celebrity than in the overall right to be informed. Characters complain back and forth about how their latest take looks or sounds,  as if there is some hidden opportunity for notoriety despite the horrific events surrounding them. And even younger people are not spared as they are heard mentioning the possibility of becoming a Facebook celeb. Image is everything, and the events somehow become far less important. Even as the composure of many throughout is largely frayed into tatters, there is an undeniable venom being poised at the idea that the public is far better alert and informed due to greater amounts of bandwidth, and video capacity. The movie intentionally wields the language of contemporary reality television and net culture to display a world far more cut off than ever, and increasingly murky with each pass deeper into darkness. Awash in american flags, and a vision of Levinson's former bastions of nostalgia now rendered into labyrinths of isolated terror.

The only issue one can surmise from all this information, is that as a phoney guerilla-style PSA, Levinson's The Bay is a mostly hammy affair buoyed by some scares, but is often hampered by its own need to scare "with purpose". So when it employs all the methods at hand, including mostly silly mood score, the package as a whole feels like a kitchen sink reel, when it probably should have been a fly-on-the-wall one. In all, a unique turn for a filmmaker once known for revering a culture's past, now eager to plunge into its ever increasingly murky heart..

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Meatball Machine(2005) Movie Thoughts

You know,..it seems like a periodic inevitability. There never seems to be a season without running into at least one often micro-budgeted piece of contemporary tokusatsu schlock. And now, here we are. And this time around, I'm finally beginning to question the reasons beyond the economic feasibility factors in why such films have been so pervasive over the last decade plus. Because they certainly weren't quite so plentiful in those heady days before the Machine Girls and Sushi Typhoons of the world. And in the angsty in-betweens of the post-Evangelion/J-horror navel gazing, it seems perhaps telling that a great many of these productions seem more interested in the craft of the FX, and the veracity of the violence than in presenting a compelling world or story.

And then I watched Meatball Machine..

In all seriousness, I had considered avoiding this title for much longer. When in the days after Pacific Rim, it felt important just to watch something far more on the serious side, or just plain disposable. And I am fortunate to report that I have been more than successful in catching the latter.

Yudai Yamaguchi & Judai Yamamoto's Meatball Machine, is an early entry in this generations sprawl of said practical FX romps which explores the life of Yoji(Issei Takahashi) a lonely, possibly mentally troubled factory worker who's life is complicated by an invasion of seemingly alien parasites. Creatures with a nasty habit of attacking and soon after, inhabiting the bodies of human hosts in the name of visceral combat in VERY public places. All the while, we share Yoji's troubles as he is forced to endure what has become a staple in a great many of these films; a cast largely populated by either perverse scum, or hyperviolent sociopaths. (Yes. They are different in these cases.) His romantic life is nonexistent, until the girl who he fawns over near his job(Aoba Kawai) notices him. And it is only after one night where he is beaten severely by a transvestite, that things truly go haywire when he runs across a larvae form of the creatures, and inexplicably takes it home.

What ensues from here, can be telegraphed from oceans across as characters are soon possessed by the creatures, fights in abandoned streets become de rigueur, and secrets are revealed in an oblique, often hasty manner. And while the film (which is based on an earlier film by Yamamoto) does take a little time in displaying the life of the story's "antihero", it never finds itself in any proper groove to make the monster work worth anything beyond a rough demo. And while there are some fun nods to FX classics such as Carpenter's The Thing, there's very little here outside of a moment that so easily could have made the piece work on a memorable level.

Perhaps I should explain: It involves the inevitable meeting between Yoji, and Sachiko (his "troubled" intended), and it is a scene that must have been seen as the potential high point. What begins as a potentially tender moment, is one that ends in sheer horror. And it's a scene that begs to be rendered in a much more effective fashion. But the problems are multi-fold for this scene, and it's a terrible shame that it fails as egregiously as this does. Things are bad enough since the buildup to this scene is pedestrian at best, but when it finally comes to when the scene must come to a head, the emotional wanting of the scene goes into helplessly creepy territory, granting it no ability to hit potent speed. The scene so badly wants to go from tender to disturbed to outright nasty within a matter of brief minutes, and it is numbing at best. The very idea of attempting three very disparate tones in one scene without an understanding of basic human reaction makes for one frustratingly lost opportunity. And while one could argue that this one scene is perhaps the one with the most potential for thematic heft, it is dashed so harshly by its overall ineptitude. It merely ends up a vacuum, drawing one more into their seat, wondering when the next spec of dust will fly by over our eyes..

The saddest part about all of this, is that the creature effects here are effectively weird and repulsive. Heck even the sound design for the monsters is unique and troubling. And it's pretty clear that a great deal of enthusiasm went into the design and construction of them. One can even see a bit of Tsukamoto within this which is a plus. Even so, Meatball Machine doesn't find itself out of feeling as if the creatures and gags were the primary reason for this film's existence, and the story came almost dead last. As a result, this weirdly rough prototype of a piece has little to offer in the way of convincing those unfamiliar with the subgenre that it would be worth near ninety minutes of their time. And for those who are, it may only offer up sensations of the kind of existential nothingness that these films seem to be so concerned with.

Perhaps that's the point?