Sunday, December 28, 2014

Why We Never Needed The Interview

And so the holiday weekend comes to a close, and I am still not sure who the much debated Rogen/Franco comedy vehicle, The Interview was ultimately made for. While I found myself indirectly swept up into the controversy surrounding the film in the weeks pre-release, a part of me was probably akin to so many others, only curious on some minute, morbid level. And after having seen it, the word "sucker" does come to mind, even if evidence has been abundantly clear that the devastating attack on Sony Studios' servers was a very real thing. Suspicion notwithstanding, what the world stage has witnessed yet again via this film, is that there is no accounting for ego, nor taste when regarding any kind of comedy. And what I witnessed via the near two-hours of excruciating dearth of laughs, was that pandering is indeed alive and well. And that no amount of marketing and bad press can wash away cheap, myopic art.

There is a part of me that is now morbidly curious about how studios like Sony intend to survive into an already uncertain future for film when their green lights tend to lean on the cheapness of their bottom line. This is a film that starts in one place, flirts with change, only to swing right back to where it begins. It's bad enough that we are host to a story where noone actually learns anything, but that the so-called complication turns out to be exactly as advertised, rendering the whole affair meaningless. If this is what it takes to get the public on board with your films, I suppose its clear that management has virtually no faith left in the viewer to chart new courses.

Is it a complete suckers game though? I mean, one should consider not merely North Korea in regards to an aggressively changing world. There is certainly room for it. This just feels like a dated, underthought, and overall cheap means of milking that issue in an era where one might see this approach to be a little..dated. Something smarter could have been composed here. But Rogen and Evan Goldberg, took the easy road, and cranked out something both regressive, and ultimately underwhelming. It's a real shame considering Randall Park, and Diana Bang in the film. They deserve much better considering their work in this. Which brings full circle that the film feels like a rush job that only serves its stars, and much less the world at large. Much like the campaign, the whole thing feels cheap in a way only comedic superstars could conjure with their desperate attempts to feel topical, and their combined egoes squatting out half-baked product. Their Adam Sandler fate, at least to me, feels complete.

There's truly nothing new, let alone interesting here. Move along.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Nightbreed: The Director's Cut Hits Netflix

"Take me to Midian.."

It has been nearly 25 years since Clive Barker's much-anticipated monster epic faceplanted onto screens, bearing marks of studio tampering, leaving the celebrated maven of the fantastic unsure of his place in the horror pantheon. Cabal Cut, aside, his tale of one man's destiny as the leader of a lost civilization of monsters has long been held as one of the great missed opportunities in the genre world. And thankfully due to the efforts of Mark Miller and friends, the cut finally hit video outlets via Shout! Factory, and is now streaming via Netflix. And after years of lamenting what could have been, this teenage admirer of the film can finally rest easy in knowing that NIGHTBREED is as close to its initial vision as possible. And what comes of it, while still bearing the at-times dreadfully awkward mark of Barker's direction, it finally feels like a legitimate film.

Boone, is a hunky welder guy who's been suffering with years of bad dreams of a mythical realm where monsters reside. How little he is prepared to discover, that this haven for freaks and shapeshifters is in fact no myth. Unbeknownst to him, his current psychiatrist, Dr. Decker (a really creepy David Cronenberg) is less interested in treating him so much as taking him at his word as he plans to find this very real place, and let our hero take the fall for his own wave of grisly family murders. And despite the outside world's assumption that he has been killed as part of the mad doctor's plan, Boone's supportive singer girlfriend tracks him down to the abandoned graveyard that serves as the gateway to this shangri la for the unusual.

Poised to be the Star Wars or Lord Of The Rings of monster pics, we can at least now see what was intended, as we get more love story, and less leaping I
in and about within the narrative.

It's especially fun to watch within today's context of superhero film fever, this tale of ordinary beings regarding the unusual with both fear and envy. Despite the film's often clumsy story propulsion,  it's made pretty explicit, Barker's love for outsiders was powerful, and something to be celebrated. We get a great array of creatures and assorted exotic types living this idyllic harmony whilst hiding from a world that continues to judge them. And like any society,  there are always reluctant members. As well as those wishing they were part of it. Much like an X-Men tale, we are at the center of a comic struggle for identification in an era punctuated by intolerance.

As for the newly restored footage, at least half of it feels criminally missing from the theatrical cut. In tradition of major cuts being made to big pieces like these, much of it involves either a subplot, or a seemingly arbitrary element. And yet, a bulk of this material involves Boone, and his best lady, Lori. Much of it quite welcome, but in deep need of focus. When talking about prophetic nightmares, or about a destiny apart as hordes of "naturals" threaten the future, it works quite well. Now if only the awkward club scene, and drugged hallucinations went over as well. We even get a surprise death that almost renders a certain character  superfluous. While they are definitely welcome additions, they often feel like classic placeholders for richer, more nuanced moments.

But again, it's the unsettling visage of Cronenberg's twisted antagonist that echoes long after the piece ends. Those familiar with the legendary auteur, know how congenial and almost doctor-like he actually is. So his turn as what is a pretty nasty response to a decades worth of slasher film, is an indelible one.

Also worthy of consideration, is the dramatically recalibrated finale. While one could definitely feel it being hasty, it's an ending that gains one emotional victory over another. While we lose the cheap shock of the previous, we get an almost operatic denouement centering on the core relationship. It's a charming switch that feels like a dry run at a center that required a few more impassioned iterations.

While not the fantasy classic it could have been, Clive Barker's NIGHTBREED, remains a startling window into the possibilities of genre. And even as the superpowered gain ground on the mainstream, it's heartening to look back at a time when the geeks, the quiet, the odd, the nerdy actually carried weight within a certain community. And his CABAL book and film remain an important, and occasionally thrilling window into that era.

I'm happy it's back.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

INTERSTELLAR (2014) Movie Thoughts

Ambition has it limits..

Echoing about in my mind as the final moments of Christopher Nolan's great attempt at a stylistic crossroads. Highly anticipated as a grand scale space drama set as the Earth seems set to close the curtain on humanity, INTERSTELLAR, is an epic fraught with balancing new frontiers of the celebrated director and the clearly human heartbeats intended for its original captain. Initially designed as a project for Steven Spielberg, what results from this much-touted hand-off, is a clear case of great talent/potentially wrong footwear. Despite all the technical mastery at work throughout the film's sprawling 169 minutes, it becomes easy to see the divide between the often sentimental Hollywood giant, and the cold, calculating new king.

Matthew McConaughey, is former expert pilot and engineer, Cooper, who discovers a secret mission to save humanity as unprecedented blight seeks to end all human life on Earth. In a time when corn is all that remains as a viable crop, and the Apollo moon landing is taught to have been a hoax, Cooper's dreams for the lives of his young son, and particularly curious and headstrong daughter, Murphy, are largely being rerouted toward agrarian lifestyles. So when the single father and kids run across clues leading to NASA's clandestine and clearly dangerous mission, Cooper is seen as the last viable candidate to pilot the long distance ship, the Endurance. The goal: to traverse the gap in spacetime in hopes of finding a habitable world for what remains of the quickly dying human race. Based upon the work of elder scientists, including old friend, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), the small crew which includes his daughter, Amelia Brand(Anne Hathaway), Romilly(David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and geometrically fascinating military robot, TARS (Bill Irwin) launch for one last gamble.

And while a great deal of the film offers up sumptuous and occasionally chilling detail regarding space travel, and alien environs, Nolan (and his brother/collaborator Jonathan) finds himself occasionally sidetracked by familiar fetishes. And while this can be expected of many great filmmakers, there are times when it simply doesn't gel with the larger whole. A problem that often dogged their last film, the obligatory, Dark Knight Rises (2012). Beginning with a mostly strong first third on Earth, the film soon hits rocky places once the often enticing talk of hard science runs headlong with the emotional core. As witnessed in past works like INCEPTION(2010), there is an almost reflexive queasiness that creeps in as the debate between theory and emotion are meant to collide. It seems to be the film's main thrust and yet both ends of the equation never seem to gather enough steam upon one another as equal combatants. Nolan's films are often meticulous exercises of conflicting ideas, and yet this time they seem unwilling to play ball as hard as previous films have displayed.

So when looking back at the film's initial existence as a Spielberg project, it's pretty easy to see where this could have all gone. But once it comes our way, the need for tangential storytelling rears its overwrought head, often sabotaging some truly graceful moments. There are stretches here that are simply daunting to contemplate being in the hands of just about any high grade auteur. From often jaw-pulling zero gravity sequences, to some utterly beautiful visions of alien worlds, there is much to behold in terms of cinematic majesty. However, this often comes apart at the hands of a script that seems hellbent on second-guessing itself. The most egregious example taking place in the final third of the film, where an uncredited starring role seeks to circumvent the mission, leading to an episode that feels completely under thought and unnecessary. It simply comes out of nowhere, almost taking the wind out of whatever sails the story was flying with.

As to whether or not this move is completely fatal to the piece may vary from one viewer to another. But considering the inspired finale, all that is left is a feeling like the waterworks have simply found themselves parched. There's no reason why this should have been the end result. And one cannot help but feel like the previous false note is largely to blame. If one is to play a film like a puzzle, every piece needs to count, and this mistake feels like a poorly cut centerpiece to an otherwise serviceable bastion of questions.

And it's a real shame too, because the cast truly brings their A-game to the proceedings. Especially McConaughey, who's gravely earnestness and vitality makes for a potent lead. Hathaway does exceptional work where she can, as does Jessica Chastain, who both feel underserved as actual characters and more like many Nolan females; as merely symbols. Also worthy of note, is Bill Irwin's voice performance as former marine robot, TARS, who is an occasionally strong counterpoint to classic spacefaring AI such as HAL 9000.

But where the film really fails to connect, is in how it maintains the core relationship between Cooper and his daughter. It's clearly something someone like Spielberg could do blindfolded, and yet Nolan breaks out the emotional big guns, and never seems to hit as hard as he does early on. The piece finds itself far more interested in debates regarding quantum theory, and openly discussing the theme rather than showing us the theme in action. While that might have worked in INCEPTION, it simply will not do with such a pared-down, more family-centric story. The fit between director and material never seems congruent, and it hurts more than hinders in sections. It's like a dancer sporting cleats, the end result is often a graceless affair.

So in all, INTERSTELLAR boasts sights and sounds never experienced in a grand space odyssey, but it rarely reaches beyond its own need to sidetrack or obsess. There are occasionally beautiful moments and ideas at play as we see and hear things we could only sum up in our wildest dreams. It's just too bad they often can't get past the pitching stage. Interstellar, for all it's yearning for the grand and intimate, intermittently sputters when it should soar.     

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Underworld Beauty (1958) Movie Thoughts

Regardless of what Seijun Suzuki has stated during many an interview, there was always something striking about his works. And this is even before his cult-legend streak throughout the 1960s as something of a stylistic firebrand, tinkering with staples of crime drama, not to mention with the possibilities of narrative film itself. But before his long road to being considered a film fan darling, his earliest days filming for Nikkatsu presented a great deal of effective meat and potatoes material for him to work with. Being the classic method, knowing the standards before blasting them, is integral here as a young Suzuki is given chance to play ball with the best. Enter the shadow-drenched, Underworld Beauty. A noir piece of the most classic ilk, translated through a very wild, lush, and eager lens.

Back in the city after three years in prison, Miyamoto (Michitara Mizushima) seeks to honor a fellow thief who has fallen on hard luck after their last score by way of a hidden satchel of diamonds. Reconvening with old gang boss Oyane(Shinsuke Ashida), a plan to sell the rocks goes south when an intervening party crashes the sale, leaving the hard luck friend on the edge of death, and the diamonds deep in his belly. Suddenly, it's a regular greed-for-all, as Miyamoto struggles to reclaim the quarry and to honor his debt as allegiances reveal their true natures. And with his friend's delinquent younger sister(Mari Shiraki) entrenched in the plot, honor is put to heavy task. Crossbreeding tried and true hard boiled character with an unexpected visual ambition, Beauty plays sly in ways that both compliment and subvert the noir subgenre.

Suzuki does ample work here, creating new renditions of then already famous archetypes. Especially in the form of Mizushima's world weary Miyamoto. A vision of a thief borne out of necessity rather than greed, his is a quiet, understated performance that grows on viewers on levels bordering on stealth. By the finale, it becomes hard not to feel wholly invested in his quest to infiltrate a hungry nest of wolves in the name of a friend. Equally potent, is Ashida's Oyane as a man driven to the opposite by similar circumstances. Patient, but no less unflagging in his doggedness, his is a quietly menacing piece of work. Also worthy of note is Kaku Takashina's grinning creep, Osawa, and Shiraki, playing the wayward Akiko with unfettered fierceness. Even Hiroshi Kondo's borderline possessed bad boyfriend, Arita makes a solid impression under Suzuki's watch. 

So when considering how well the cast works, much of it is due to the director's already evident talent for visual power. As much as he wrings the best possible performances out of his cast, there is also an almost greedy drive to make every crowded, and dank environment of the film pop with detail. Being his first work to be made with "Nikkatsuscope", allowing him to paint some truly impressive images. For the kind of material he is working with, it becomes mere window dressing for what he does with space and objects, as if eager to embellish the working script by Susumu Saji. Deep focus captures great amounts of nightlife, as well as the seedy underbelly Miyamoto must infiltrate. It's so potent that once we reach the film's ultimate climax, we are treated to a most welcome visual summation of all that has occurred. Delving so far into the realm of what diamonds mean, versus their original state. Our hero must face hell before reaching for any light of redemption. It's a little marvel of a final act.

So for a one-time studio lifer like Suzuki, it's easy to merely pass judgment on a film as this as being something of a workman era mark. But to do this would be a grand disservice, as Underworld Beauty remains an enjoyable romp throughout. Fans of his later, more subversive work might do well to dig a little further back into the formative years, and find this one a serviceable case of charting the cartography of crime cinema. Just solid enough to be great mainstream entertainment, and rich enough to be considered a thrilling hint of the rambunctiousness to come. At the finale, when sunlight has finally come to our eyes, it is even here that confinement awaits all who seek paradise within the same pool. Suzuki seemed to understand this quite well. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before escape in a most colorful fashion felt necessary.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Impulse Explorations: YOU'RE NEXT (2011)

 After years of peeking into the more highly spotlighted corners of the horror film universities, seeking new voices who would carry on the legacy of a great few others, I can say with great confidence that the works of Adam Wingard tend to leave me dry. If he were a filmmaker who's voice wished to usher in a new era of slasher thrills with a new twist, it could certainly do with a little more sense of gravity than a cursory love of an idea.As it is, You're Next plays a lot like a junior college final with cinema grade visuals.

Driving into the Missouri mountains to visit his well-off parents and family, Crispian (A.J. Bowen), along with his former student-turned girlfriend, Erin (Shami Vinson) unwittingly arrive as bloody murder hits the vicinity. Isolated from much of civilization, the immediately dysfunctional gathering is quietly being stalked by a group of masked killers hard set on killing everyone in attendance. But upon the moment that the party has turned fight for survival, it become clear that there is more than meets the eye with these armed fiends(and that Erin is no ordinary fiance). Attempting to subvert the "home invasion" subgenre ala The Strangers, or even Inside, Wingard's You're Next, flounders about, never finding itself out of first gear.

The film plays out like the blueprint for a family drama satire that never figures out how to make the humor sing. One can witness the intent, but the script by Simon Barett, never sees a way to play on the dynamics between Crispian's family members as his partner haplessly witnesses. So it eventually gives up, and expects the audience to just go with the blood as if it were the only attraction worth attention. There is a definite love for the visceral on display. But without the characters complimenting the premise, it all feels more like an exercise in sadism where it could have easily been blackly comic. Fellow genre cineastes, Joe Swanberg, and Ti West, do what they can, hamming it up in supporting roles that border on thud-inducing. Not to mention Upstream Color's Amy Seimetz, and  horror veteran, Barbara Crampton come off a little undercooked. We have a potential for ensemble that is never milked to any satisfying effect. Again, we get the idea of a film, but aside from the expected gore, there's little else holding matters together.

Making matters even more bland, as good as Vinson is here, there's never any doubt as to how everything is going to play out. It also plays heavily into an almost survivalist fetishism that feels like the main reason for the film's existence. As the killers close in on the remaining family members in the estate, all we get are the expected knock down drag-outs, and  Home Alone-esque setups.While it could make for an interesting action character, it's hardly a source of depth for what could have been much more. Which again plays into the films of Wingard, who seems to carry some very rudimentary ideas for gender roles. There is an almost frat boy worldview being conveyed that never allows the characters to forge anywhere beyond simple, and often distasteful types. While that might make for definable heroes and cannon fodder, it does very little to make them compelling. When sarcastic horror comedies like the original April Fool's Day(1986), is a better example of this kind of story, it's time to worry.

Considering the decades-plus of cinematic bloodletting, one would think that someone would be informed that we would need more than this. Oh, we do, Wingard. We really do.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014) Is A Charming Renegade Triumph

I grew up around weirdos.

No adolescence is easy. Let's be fair. But having grown up in an area where your options were limited, a good companion was often a lucky break. Being a member of the latchkey kid generation, it was that chance meeting of that other kid from the neighborhood who embraced their oddness that would make for a startling new chapter. Whether we were children of divorce, ostracized for being into "weird" comics, movies, and loved talking about them. Game heads, Ritalin kids, pranksters, mischief makers with a yen for fire. Solace was often found in the presence of buddies who would miraculously understand where you were coming from. And at times, kids who would know a great deal more than you. Childhood was largely populated by what came to be known as the dregs of school society. Many in the upper echelons would know of us, but would sooner not be seen around them. Perhaps living with this tiny, unspoken inkling, that they wished to spend more time around us.

I grew up around weirdos.

Whether they be your classic comic book reading, movie loving nerds, to the kids who grew up ready and willing to play havoc with the cards they were dealt, they were often real, and complimentary to fellow odd souls. Dysfunctional, perhaps. But often dedicated, and understanding in ways many grownups seemed to have long forgotten.

As such, pals and I loved the Drive-in, and early VHS experience. It was a ritual of sorts, not to mention something of a soothing experience, partaking in the ritual of watching something strange. Something dangerous. Something inspiring. While many of the films cannot be claimed to be that of high artistic merit, there was something almost kin about watching said films. They felt renegade, excluded, laughable in ways that perhaps mirrored certain souls. There was something within the realm of the exploitation cheapie that felt like home.

Films can often be seen as windows into their makers. And as such, we can feel the perspective and personality thriving within even the most dysfunctional work. Especially the ones that come together successfully. This is especially true of low budget film. No matter how strange, perverse, or eyebrow-raising, few feelings beat that of a connection between viewer and a functional genre movie,

All of this needs to be stated up front, and without apology before discussing James Gunn's first foray into the big time. That we can at last live in a world where a Troma alumni can be drafted into the ranks of MARVEL's creative circle, and successfully conjure a loving tribute to the outcast in all of us with an unerring indie spirit. Well, it's nothing short of miraculous.

I could go on, and echo many sentiments shared by peers and friends. I could beam about how Guardians Of The Galaxy, is a team-up tale on par with some of the very best tales of the fantastic captured on film. That it is the anti-Avengers, and this is meant in the best complimentary sense. I could rant and rave about how beautifully the cast works together, as well as on their own. Spend time elaborating how much I love seeing Chris Pratt make for a most winning lead whom I wish had more screen time. About how much Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Batista, and Vin Diesel make for an instantly charming team comprised of broken, and lonely souls. How great it is to see Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Rooker in a film of this size. How brilliantly realized the world of the film works, and how nicely it opens of the Marvel canvas in ways never seen before. How Ronan The Accuser(Lee Pace) best represents the nerd that never sees past themselves as an answer to their pain. How the film makes the best possible case for very real nerds (and nerd friendships) in all of comic book cinema. 

About the only criticism that could actually be lobbed at the film, is simply that despite the two-hour plus running time, one couldn't be blamed for wanting more. Well-balanced and unabashed, Gunn's first foray into mega-franchise cinema is a spiritual triumph for the little ones. A validation of the often unspoken majority, even in an era where the term, nerd, seems to have lost all meaning. And this is coming from someone with very little prior knowledge of the source material. It transcends, and speaks to a spirit often ignored by genre cinema. More than this, it's a celebration of outcast families everywhere.

This is Drive-in/VHA cinema at it's biggest, wildest, wooliest, and most sincere. Time to break out the champagne dated 1988. Been a long time coming.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014) Is Genre At Its Most Important

Division between background and culture. Belief in the ability to overcome such division. The myth of the known other.  Our lesser selves, desperate for simple answers. The allure of technological solutions at the cost of fellow beings. Future generations physically and philosophically hanging in the balance. An abyss that threatens all when gravity becomes far too much to withstand.  We see this on every news source, every third or fourth tweet, hear about it through friends and family. A seemingly endless wave of hate, coupled with escalation by way of ever advancing death machines. These are at the heart of this weekend's big theatrical release, and I am still reeling from its effects.

Time for a big admission: Despite the surprise love many have for Rupert Wyatt's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011), I still find it to be a competent, but often hobbled first entry in this new generation of installments to the classic franchise. While it does so much to remove the distaste experienced while viewing the much lesser Tim Burton retelling of 2001, it often feels constructed by committee, and suffers from some of the more egregious cases of fan pandering imaginable. The shining success of Rise, comes from the character work, especially in Andy Serkis's portrayal of future ape icon, Caesar. Watching him grow from lab chimp, to family member, to leader of a simian revolution was a marked improvement. And one that connected well enough to start the tale from a perfectly understandable place of kinship between hyper-intelligent apes, and the humankind which will inevitably tilt over in monkey favor. Gripes of annoying wall to wall references aside, Rise remains a surprising prequel with enough dramatic groundwork for an even greater story.

Enter Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Ten years after the events of Rise, Caesar and his surviving society of apes have now nestled deep into the woods overlooking San Francisco, and have created a functioning civilization far from what remains of humanity after the so-called "Simian Flu"(the human-made ALZ-113) all but wipes them out completely. Catching up with Caesar and his people, we are introduced to them during a hunting party, seeking food when it becomes clear that his leadership has become a foundation upon which all apes could co-exist. "Ape Not Kill Ape" In fact, when Caesar is asked about his feelings on his human upbringing, he claims to miss them from time to time, but feels that they are but a memory. Humans have become a footnote in their history. That is, until Caesar's son, Blue Eyes and his friend Ash (son of the first film's Rocket) are found by a small group of humans near the foot of their mountain. A shot rings out, and certainty is blasted away, as it comes to light that the remaining survivors of the Simian Flu apocalypse are in fact living within the ruins of the city, armed, and afraid.

Led by a once family man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the remnants of SF humans are tattered, strained, and desperate. Low on gas powered energy, and portable tech, Dreyfus and company seek to reach the local dam in the hills in hopes of making contact with any remaining human outposts. Naturally, the ape society is situated perfectly between these two points of life. The mentioned gunfire comes from the hand of Carver(Kirk Acevedo), one of many ready to draw a gun at what he sees to be the source of his life's misery. He is not alone, as we learn that many in the human compound, including Dreyfus, see apes as the very cause of all that has befallen humankind. A shared lack of faith leads some toward a violent resolution should the apes not wish for human intervention within their young world in the mountains. Not all in the initial group encounter are as terrified of the almost speech-capable ape society. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and a few others see the apes as special, and likely capable of reason. So when Caesar sees reason to quell the tension among his own, the sentiment of fear lives on in the form of Koba, a bonobo, who in the first film displayed scars of years of mistreatment at the hands of human scientists. It is in this ingrained tension between both species that drives Dawn toward something far more prescient than a mere AVATAR-esque tale of moral oversimplification.

The addition of Matt Reeves into the Apes fold, is an inspired, and proven choice here as his work with a script by Rise's Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (rewrites by Mark Bomback) harkens to the best moments from the original, with a sense of clarity that is deeply modern and affecting. The initial half hour is extraordinarily unlike typical blockbuster fare, and is so patient with character work, that it becomes far more exciting to know where each one is coming from by merely observing mannerisms. Confident mastery of visuals, performance, score (Michael Giacchino at his understated best)and an incredible sense of dread seeps through every pore of the setup, making it one of the more distressingly beautiful ones ever executed. We fully know who everyone is, we know the stakes, and we know..that none of this can end well.

As hinted at, Dawn also takes an almost Dark Knight route and surpasses it, in that it never lets either side off the hook. For all of Caesar's passion for understanding between ape and human, there is much for him to still learn as apes like Koba cannot see past humanity's terrible tendencies. And for Malcolm and his family, a need to see their faith through whereas Dreyfus and Carver see only a threat. Paradoxes inherent in both camps, only made worse by the revelation that the human compound is carrying within it an armory capable of all out war. The trust of an open hand versus the swift justice of an automatic rifle. The film is far more concerned with the nature of humankind versus its own fears. It even goes so far as to explore what happens when the words of peace can be reappropriated in the name of conflict. How easily we forget. And how easily we can so easily write off the other in the name of returning to a life lived in blissful ignorance of others. As if that ever guaranteed lasting inner peace. Much like how superhero works like X-Men attempt to evoke mental imagery of classic schisms such as those between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, we finally have a big budget film willing to more clearly explore the allure of violent retribution over a long road to peace.

A push button solution. A trigger for happiness.

We can talk here about how impressively constructed a great deal of this really is. How magnificent the imagery plunges its ways into the mind long after viewing the film. How astounding the apes are, and how beautiful their fur reacts to natural phenomenon. How both Andy Serkis and Tony Kebbell(Koba), with the help of WETA, and various artists convey the best and worst in us in ways that even most human acting fails to encompass. How our kids are often trapped,and occasionally cursed by the prejudices and fears of our parents. How the inevitable battle between human and ape is the stuff of nightmares. How the film offers up the best parable for conflicts that are happening miles away from us as media outlets often take merely one side, never considering that both to all sides truly want similar things. This is a blockbuster with a greater deal on its mind than most, and it expresses them with conviction and clarity we simply don't get in many places outside of literature.

It has been years since a studio release did this to me, and I cannot wait to experience it again. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, is that rare example of what big genre film is capable of being. It is a modern allegory of often shattering impact, and I cannot recommend it more.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tsukamoto Revisited: GEMINI (1999) A Prophet Goes Mainstream

As previously mentioned, the filmed works of Shinya Tsukamoto are by and large concerned with the paradoxical nature of the "successful" japanese person, versus their innermost selves who are seemingly being dragged behind. So when given the chance to explore this conflict with a slightly larger budget than ever before, his first foray into vibrant color is ironically set in the days prior to the advent. Loosely based upon a tale by the legendary Edogawa Rampo, GEMINI tells the story of Meiji era doctor Yukio Daitokuji (Masahiro Motoki), and his growing divide between his devotion to his practice, and to the powerful of the community. Seemingly unfazed by pride and disdain for those lesser in social stature, his charmed life as an heir to a respected physician is suddenly made hell by way of a malevolent doppelganger. And all the while, the mystery behind his beautiful amnesiac wife (Ryo) finds itself key to the storm. His denying of the poor as plague threatens to harm all throughout the region summons up secrets thought to have been buried in the name of the doctor's success. And as matters spiral, it becomes clear that the worlds of Rampo and Tsukamoto might very well be cut from the same cloth.

His world shattered, and now cast out of his own home, the doctor comes to the revelation that this double is vying for his wife, and with possible good reason. While languishing for a return to his life from the bottom of a long abandoned well, Daitokuji must not only contend with a double hellbent on usurping his life as a Tokyo doctor and husband, but of some truly disturbing facts about the world he and his family struggled to create. Beginning with a bizarre stench that begins to hover over his practice, and eventually the death of his secret-bearing parents, the doctor's place in the nature of community is placed headlong into a funhouse of mirrors scenario where nature was never far from reclaiming what pride had sought to cut away. 

The mystery and fury behind the tale feels very much like a tailor-made prequel to Tsukamoto's film output. His direct phrasing regarding Daitokuji and his relationship with his wife is a perfect seed for the cybernetic nightmares to come in the 1990s. We are given time to take in the growing divide occurring between the rich and poor, and the attitudes that pervade. Just enough to imply that Rin has the outsider's view, which plays heavily into the disruptions that begin to avalanche over the course of the story. Tsukamoto takes great advantage of playing with time and perspective without much of the hard-edged experimentation of his earlier films. And even so, his trademark handheld imagery and post film ADR work keeps matters feeling that indie aura. Especially unique to this period, is the lush color work which was a bold move. As if the world were a more lively place before greed and entitlement overtook the land, bleeding the color out. Acted as if part of an old world play, the broad gestures of Motoki, Ryo, Tadanobu Asano, and the rest of the cast embody the colorful landscape of the film in the spirit of a nightmarish traveling band of performers not unlike the circus we experience within the story. Tsukamoto understands his roots. And considering the release year (amidst the burgeoning J-Horror boom), there certainly was a yearning for implanting an origin story for contemporary terrors.

And judging from GEMINI, that terror is part and parcel with humankind.  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013) Film Review

There are those moments when the global political climate has become so polarized that film become something of a commenting agent on the nature of social balance, often to the detriment of actual substance and/provocation. In recent years, this has come in the form of numerous big budget offerings such as The Dark Knight Rises(2012), The Hunger Games(2012), and Tom Hooper's Les Miserables (also 2012). Films flirting with ideas of revolution, often to middling, and often pandering results that speak to a more established worldview. Which is why with great joy and relief that Bong Joon-ho's first western-style feature ranks amongst the very best of its kind. And I say this understanding just how troubling such an opinion could be. But as it stands, SNOWPIERCER does for modern allegorical science fiction what it did for many of the best during the strife-ridden 1970s. A wild, weird fever poem that comes out of the gates swinging with heavy rusted metal in its hands, refusing to let go of the fight.

Right onto the bitter end.

Based upon the graphic novel series, Le Transperceneige by Lob, Rochette, and Legrand, we are thrust headlong into an earth subsumed by a new ice age after an ecological cure-all for global warming backfires. The remains of humanity are now populating a fully self sustaining locomotive which travels the frozen globe over the course of a year. And civilization has resumed its old world habits as the rich and powerful maintain the front, "sacred" engine of the train, while the rest toil in desolation in the rear cars. Seventeen years of this existence has sown seeds of revolution amongst the tail dwellers before, but Curtis Everett (a thoughtful, solid Chris Evans) has a plot in mind which threatens to go further than any previous revolt. But in order to do this, Everett and comrades must enlist the services of former engineer Namgoong Minsoo, a convict with extensive understanding of the train's design and security systems..and his equally loopy daughter, Yona (played by Bong Joon-ho veterans, Song Kang-ho, and Go Ah-Sung, again playing family). The deal is made by way of a shared addiction to a dangerous hallucinogenic drug being distributed to the pair in small doses each gate they open.

After years of living as "freeloaders" to the elites of the locomotive, living off of mysterious food product, and scraping for what amount of comfort and space possible, Curtis and friends undertake what is mythically a bare fisted journey through the ranks of civilization as the powers that be struggle to maintain the long established order. In the guise of the ever prim and frankly, over-the-top Mason (played with great relish by favorite, Tilda Swinton), strikes against the order have normally found themselves sufficiently snuffed out. But alas, Curtis and company prove themselves time and again. Despite this, a breathless game of not-so-magical doorknobs ensues as the rebellion finds that their mythical world is far stranger and terrifying than ever imagined. Even as they move forward car by car, Curtis' hopes to install respected elder, Gilliam (John Hurt) as the engine's new representative are put to great test. This is perhaps a good place as any to admit that the structure of SNOWPIERCER does such a surprising job of fulfilling so many important character beats in careful, but unusual doses as the journey becomes increasingly grueling. And yet, director Bong, cast and crew never let up on the world building and tension throughout the piece. Many often simple rules of storytelling are defied early on, but are rewarded by way of unexpected strokes of personality later. Strokes that are often the earmarks of an auteur ready to play in this larger, more expressive canvas. The director is aware of the dark dream he is carving together here, and it's both an alien, and understandably human one.

Seeking to overthrow the order of the train in hopes of liberating what remains of humankind is at the core of our heroes' mission, but to know what lies at the end entices with an unerring dread. Complicating their journey ahead, are the loss of two young children belonging to two of the would-be rebels(Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner). The story tightens its grip rather aggressively, and plays upon numerous notions of inequality and exploitation, as our characters face frightening enemies, experience sunlight for the first time, not to mention view the world left behind. (where all are told that it is a hellscape, guaranteeing death for those who choose to escape the confines of the train) The painterly nature of the entire film is challenged by such small and confined quarters. And yet somehow each realm represents a new rung on the societal ladder. Considering the original controversy between Joon-ho, and the Weinstein's over the length of the film for US audiences, it is incredibly hard to imagine what would warrant edits. There doesn't seem to be any additional fat on this bone. The thoughts and events on display show little to no reason for additional cuts, and the final film works despite what first time viewers might assume was a rushed opening.

Stories of the train/society's great creator, Wilford (Ed Harris) is hinted at throughout, adding more to the mystery behind the creation and maintenance of this enduring machine. And the road to Wilford is a harsh, costly one that underlies phrases dispersed throughout the film regarding precise balance, controlled numbers, and a need to maintain places in the set hierarchy. The have-nots languish in near Holocaust-like trappings, littered with filth and roaches, and the haves are served regularly to the points of absurdity. The selected few young who are born on the train are served doses of canned education regarding the machine as a savior, and Wilford the unseen, divine benefactor. All within the guise of "natural order". With Mason and her gallery of near fanatical weirdos protecting the train's wealth, we are guests to a surrealist's vision of our daily world, granting us a large scale vision that is effectively nightmarish. The "sacred engine", is what it is due to triumphing over science's greatest gamble, and yet nothing has changed from the human world of the outside. A simulacrum. A continuation. Business as usual.

The element that makes this even more impactful, is in how to consider the director's past works, and his own concerns for his homeland. Bong Joon-ho has used a diverse array of genres to protest what he sees as a grand problem for growing up South Korean. And what he has fashioned here becomes his most direct message to date: the rebels, are Northerners. While the patented, passive aggressive silliness in the latter cars represents the Gagnam Style in all its horrifically plastic glory. And if this is little more than a reductive pet theory, just wait until the final act where motivations are revealed, and don't say that it doesn't sound more than a little familiar. While quite universal in its concerns for the inequities of modern civilization, there are lines here that echo heavily from Korea's tortured past. And to have Hollywood actors deliver these lines is a subversive piece of serendipity that is simply miraculous (not to mention gutting). Also thrilling to witness, is the re-pairing of Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung who continue to play father and daughter brilliantly. Come to think of it, everyone across the board is solid. If there were even one remotely off-key note in the cast, perhaps it is Jamie Bell's Edgar, who feels a little uneven in the handling. 

Joon-ho's poetics start off relatively simplistic throughout the initial thirty minutes, but are textured greatly come the latter half when we finally discover who these entities are, what they represent, and just how paradoxical certain world models truly are. And when matters finally reach their meltdown point in what stands as the boldest denouement of this type of story possible, it becomes easier to see why director Bong chose what he did. Greater themes of trust, and an overall reflexive approach to nature lie at the burning core of SNOWPIERCER, that could generally put off certain viewers. Because at a glance, the film and its cast imply something that so easily comports itself to the typical big budget spectacle. This is no simplistic exploration of bourgeois versus the proles, it is a map of what has led us to this point, troubles and all. And the answers are not pat in any way, and might very well be painful to experience. What we really have here, is a triumph of vision on par with the best fantastical cinema has ever attempted. Not simply concerned with being a balm for the disenfranchised,  SNOWPIERCER, is a glorious splinter in the side of our developed world, and I couldn't be happier that it exists.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tsukamoto Revisited: Bullet Ballet (1998) An Astonishing Point Of Metamorphosis

It is never easy to make the leap from the more artistically flexible world of no-budget filmmaking, and into the slick and often more hobbled sheen of mainstream cinema without losing a bit of the initial authorial spark in the process. Once such a transition happens, it often becomes less about the personal voice, and more about maintaining accounts and studio credibility. And when this happens, certain story molds are often adopted in the name of playing matters toward viewers less accustomed to an auteur's vision. If global cinema still has a lively community of independent-minded creators with an extended pinky toe in the mainstream, one has to include Shinya Tsukamoto amongst this rabble. And despite his being a voice that has seen some truly commercial cul-de-sacs, it has often been one to never stray terribly far from his initial, almost home-made texture. Whether it be via the generous and handsome use of handheld, hyperkinetic editing, and largely non-diegetic audio, a few seconds in, and one can almost feel that the characters of TETSUO are never truly far away from the current story we are witnessing.

So when we delve back in time, and seek out the point when this voice made its first leap into classically linear storytelling, we inevitably come to Bullet Ballet. Shot on his still go-to-black and white, and adorned with much of what made TETSUO and Tokyo Fist so aesthetically troubling, Ballet injects a most unexpected mass of humanity where much had been missing by design previously. Part coming-of-age story, part recession-era ball of existentialism, Ballet paints a stark vision of urban loneliness without the meandering dialogue, or navel-gazing often known to bog many a similar piece down. By contrast, Tsukamoto employs the best of his already established arsenal to weave a tale where the young and the old find themselves at a spiritual impasse, often with bittersweet epiphanies illustrated by their actions.

Successful commercial director, Goda suddenly arrives home to discover his wife dead by apparent gunshot to the head. Shocked enough at the loss, let alone the means (he explains to authorities that they never owned, let alone possessed a firearm), he is suddenly enamored with the idea of seeking such a weapon in one of the most gun strict cultures imaginable. Throughout what seems to be a desperate quest to end his life upon said acquisition, he run across a gang of daredevil youths seemingly experiencing a similar turning point. Particularly in the guise of  the wayward Chisato (Kirina Mano) , who seems to resonate with the death-tripping Goda. All sides flirting with an avalanche of change that seems programmed to consume them all, the establishment and the restless find themselves in near rhythmic syncopation.

One of the most impressive things that Tsukamoto advances into a more dramatic structure, is a very raw sense of desolation as our characters seek a means to escape their concrete cages. So much of the film's visual architecture is pure walled, wet, neon drenched, and artifice. It's to such a degree, that it envelops the cast into this realm where sunlight is more incidental, and much less assuring. Even as Goda and company wander the Tokyo cityscape, there is a feeling of near suffocation that ultimately compliments their often irrational behavior. Even as they run across an entire world of seedy characters, undocumented denizens, lowlives, killers, and weirdos, it all feels like Tsukamoto is not reveling in this world in ways that other directors do. It becomes clear that many are this way because of their surroundings. It even goes so far as to imply that the only reason why Goda is reacting the way he is, is because of this ingrained need to fulfill the obligations of the collective- without asking the soul first.

Throughout his near nightly jags of considering death, it is the words of his lost love that haunts. Especially when they agreed to society's narrative over their own individual ones.

In flashbacks and by way of his encounters with Chisato and her friends, we are host to a system long in the function, but low on the self-reflection. So when violence by way of technology comes into play as a solution, it's easy to see how such a curse seems to have been woven into the Japanese experience post-WWII. Tsukamoto and company are viscerally taking on the detritus of the previous generation, and somehow finding beauty within it all. Even as development and technology begins to show signs of decay and scarification, the 1990s as a decade presented this opportunity in ways that perhaps have been covered up by means of mobile device culture, and a growing disconnect between individuals rather than groups. Because if even Goda could find some manner of future beyond his loss, it is all about roaming the landscape, never sure if salvation is right around the corner.  

Because destruction is nearly a lead-in to other realities, Tsukamoto seems to be implying. Whether it be via a bullet or nuclear blast, those left behind must still reassemble futures.

Nothing, is ever truly over.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Edge Of Tomorrow (2014): Movie Thoughts

As humanity takes its final breaths after a devastating alien invasion, military PR officer, Lt. Col. Bill Cage(Tom Cruise), is summoned by high command and ordered to join the front lines of a massive final assault. Completely green in the realm of combat, Cage’s protests are countermanded, as he is knocked unconscious and dropped off where the united military forces prepare for the anticipated Operation Downfall near Verdun. And despite his unending wishes to avoid service if he has to, a sneak attack on the human forces sends Cage and fellow soldiers into what looks like a clear pre-emptive slaughter. Upon the hellish battlefield, it is here that Cage’s encounter with the fearsome MIMIC entities leaves him dead..Only for him to awaken back at the drop off spot, merely hours before. In a bizarre twist, his day has reset, and seems to do so every time he is killed. Seeing the advantages to this potentially nightmarish predicament, it is here that he runs into celebrated war hero, Rita Vratatski ( “The Angel Of Verdun”, played to perfection by Emily Blunt), who apparently is familiar with this phenomenon. Together, this shared knowledge is put to the ultimate test as the alien ability to “reset” time is now in Cage’s hands, but the MIMICs are never to be underestimated.

Based on the 2004 light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, and the subsequent manga, the puzzlingly retitled, Edge Of Tomorrow is easily one of the better J-media adaptations imaginable. Taking a cue from the original book, and dismantling the often typical otaku archetypes and attitudes, and keeping the speculative wackiness of the universe makes for an effective retooling. For the typical “kill ‘em all” storylines in military action films of the past, it’s refreshing to see a fantasy take on it with such humor and energy. Doug Liman, working with an often thin, but personality-riddled script by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez & John-Henry Butterworth, creates the ultimate in-video game experience, complete with just enough gravity and laughs to keep it fun throughout. Embodying the action game scheme by way of a Vonnegut meets Grimwood meets Groundhog Day manner, where characters relive the same day, only to exploit this as a means of tactical advancement.

The catch here being that death is the only trigger for a new life.

Which makes for the film’s most sadistically funny conceit; we get to see Tom Cruise die an absurd number of times attempting to turn the tide of this most dire 24 hours! And considering years of the media, and subsequent public disdain for the Hollywood legend, there is an audience who is ready and willing to partake in such a twisted idea. Thankfully, so is Cruise, who delivers one of his most infectiously fun performances in an action film, ever. He’s so ready to throw himself into proceedings, that it almost feels masochistic at points. But this is well earned, as the character of Cage starts out as your classic combat dodging mannequin, stopping at nothing to ditch active duty, even going so far as to blackmailing his commanding officer played by the ever wonderful Brendan Gleeson. Starting at this particular compass point, Cruise’s arc involves him growing more and more acquainted with faces on the field (including a still bug hunting, Bill Paxton in top form), as well as a concept of sacrifice. Which leads us to the biggest surprise of all..

This technically isn’t even a Tom Cruise vehicle..

Enter Rita Vratatski, the woman who’s surprise victory over the MIMIC menace led to the proliferation of the military’s exoskeleton project, and is hailed as an almost mythic war hero. Emily Blunt’s rendition of the character is one that not only aces the original book’s, but becomes a thrilling touchpoint for big budget action cinema. Where Cruise plays something of a central role throughout the film, it is ultimately Blunt’s presence that heralds something to the effect of a torch passing. A character with only the mission, and fragments of a past that she guards quite closely makes for a refreshing business lead. She knows how the “game” works, and is entrusting her fate to a man who must only help her by way of dying repeatedly for the sake of self-improvement. But when she can fight, its a raw exhibition of dedication and poise. Even better, she is not idealized in any classic manner of otaku fetishism. While we may have experienced a number of action heroes who happen to be female in the past, the idea that this is not only a non-issue, but one whom a once vaunted action star would defer to in a most sincere sense, is significant. Cruise, is very much the sidekick!

Soon into the midsection of the film, it becomes implied that there are far more renditions of this day that are not shown, leaving us to play along as Cage and Vratatski attempt to outwit fate time and again. If any flaws begin to invade the story, this is where it happens. Even so, it almost seems to be parodying what we expect from big action films, and having a blast while doing it. The loop storyline becomes a kind of window for us to better understand not only how the war could be won, but also of our leads who couldn’t be from greater divisions. Where the film begins to flirt with the implications of their unique moral places, is also where it flags a bit until the shaky finale. We never get a full exploration of their changing worldviews by way of this bizarre situation, and as such, the film must be taken as more a ride than anything else. After all, we are talking more of video games of a previous generation than of the way they are slowly beginning to spider in complexity and moral quandary. But where it does make up for all of this, is in humor and action, which bursts out in torrents. The battle sequences are striking, and the MIMIC creatures are things of  an almost drug-addled beauty.

In summation, Edge Of Tomorrow is easily one of the year’s biggest genre surprises. Far from the typical Tom Cruise action fare, this is perhaps the best of its kind, and easily Liman's best in over a decade. And it is sure to reward upon repeat viewings. As for the implications of war spin doctors being forced into fighting wars alongside those who actually volunteered for service, one could certainly do worse. But perhaps in conflicts post WWII, all we have been doing, has been retooling ourselves into further understanding the future. There are some mild jabs of this nature happening throughout, but it never comes to any major fruition. Which is to say relax, unwind, suit up, and get ready to watch Tom Cruise live out the NES Ninja Gaiden campaign of your dreams.

All the dying, none of the controller-gnawing after effects.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) Is Numerous Layers Of Attempted Undoing

In a desolate future where all that remain of average humans and mutants are on the losing end of a horrific war versus a machine enemy, the final battle will be decided by way of time travel. With the last remnants of mutated humans fighting the same final stand time and again due to Kitty Pryde(Ellen Page)'s ability to send minds back a few minutes before the same assault annihilates them all. It is here that the finally re-allied pairing of Charles Xavier(Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr (Sir Ian McKellen) posit that the only chance at averting this dire outcome, is by sending someone far earlier, to 1973. A time when one single event undertaken by a fellow mutant, sets the entire Sentinel apocalypse in motion. The catch? The only mutant left that could possibly handle such an intense trip back into his younger body, is the ever volatile Logan (Hugh Jackman).

It takes an often absurd amount of effort to undo the past, but what about a past series of wayward films nearly a decade in the maintaining? This question penetrates beyond the mere plot of Bryan Singer's directorial return to the long-troubled X-Men film franchise in what is one of the more unusual cases of course correction I have ever witnessed. Taking on the classic time travel story originally published in 1981, elder cast meets young in a tale of redemption spanning several decades as the rift between humans and mutants reaches apocalyptic proportion. Again, it is no mean feat to undo a few simple choices made nearly ten years ago, but Singer and company give it a daring go at it (to marginally successful results).

Even more than an ambitious journey for a filmmaker with numerous levels of past deeds to be undone, DoFP features one of the more challenging storylines of the franchise. And as such, does a mostly effective job of juggling character and story. The lynchpins of the tale being that of the now-fractured relationship of past Charles and Erik (James McAvoy and a still riveting as iron, Michael Fassbender) now at its most strained since the aftermath of the events of First Class. With the two old friends turned rivals over their philosophies leaves Erik imprisoned deep beneath the Pentagon, and Charles, now a drug-addicted recluse, Logan's mission to inform them of future events makes for a great deal of the film's juice. The need for both old friends to rejoin forces in the name of stopping someone very close to them from killing the man responsible for setting events in motion. The man in question, being noted scientist, Bolivar Trask(Peter Dinklage). The man who will implement the Sentinel program, an army of humanoid machines capable of identifying and destroying mutants with frightening accuracy. But once the mission is well in motion, it becomes quite clear that even more than events that can be altered, it is in tattered bonds between mutants that might prove to be the most difficult to sway. Especially when it is the strained heart of Mystique/Raven(Jennifer Lawrence).

Course correction might be at the heart of the piece, but as a time travel piece, it is far more interested in what truly drives the series; character drama, and social concern. And while the film at times finds itself a little bogged down by an already overwhelmed cast, it at times feels uneven in tone, and unable to center its emotional drive where it needs it most. What we get in terms of the soap operatics lies mostly between MacAvoy and Fassbender, who again deliver some of the series' best work. And once again, there is great use of the ever reliable Jackman as a beast-man, ever at odds with his own nature in a situation that could completely derail at his expense. And while a great deal of the film makes good with this within the first hour, it also finds itself relatively lost in a cacophony of twists and specious cartoon logic that almost threatens to undo the remaining running time. An underlying concern for the unspoken for veterans in wars of the past rings its head numerous times as a new thematic wrinkle. Sadly, this angle finds itself underutilized, even as a majority of the film is set amidst the Vietnam conflict.

 One element here that almost cripples a lot of the film's aims to be one of global and temporal scale, is an often excessive sense of stylized history, occasionally flirting with pure camp. One could almost argue that this is an effect of the previous films taking on a number of bizarre shifts over the years. What DoFP does in a very interesting way, is pay lip service to the series as a whole, and attempt to override all the troubles that have dogged the series, perhaps since the original 2000 debut. Having come through years of self-conscious comic book adaptations, this is also a fully "out" rendition of the X-Men films. In a post-Avengers world, it's hard not to look back and see just how panicked the studio must have been about presenting such larger than life characters to the screen. It took a decade and a half to reach where we are today, and with our characters desperately seeking a way to undo the mistakes of the past, we are at last able to see a more embracing vision of the universe.

The one place that I couldn't reconcile with the film, sadly is with the lack of feminine characterization. It's difficult enough to buy the wobbly logic of sending Logan in the stead of Pryde who was the story's original time traveler back to the past. But to not grant us enough insight into the mind of Mystique, who's entire agency in the story makes for the film's most important internal conflict is more than a missed opportunity, it's an almost fatal omission. Lawrence milks her role for all that its worth, but a little more on why she is so driven to commit her world-altering act would have done the film a great emotional service. Considering the best X-films contained with them a special feminine power integral to the spirit of the piece, it is sadly diminished here.

So in all, Singer's return to the franchise that made him into something of a divisive figure in fantasy filmdom is both a welcome and overburdened success. While it in no way undoes years of bad ideas, it does make for a sweet and occasionally thrilling apology. The world of the cinematic X-universe has been largely a dysfunctional one. It's with a surprised heart to express that for all its issues, Days Of Future Past carries with it a weight that helped bring the era of the superhero to fruition. Still a shame that this return to form came in the visage of a boys club reunion.

Oh, and the movie world's grander introduction to P. Maximoff, also known as Quicksilver(Evan Peters)? Possibly the film's biggest, happiest surprise.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014) Is Crushingly Average

Will it ever be enough?

The question that rang through my mind thirty minutes into Legendary Pictures' grand leap into the world of classic kaiju. Edwards' first major studio release, featuring TOHO's grand reptile winds up being less a narrative on our current world, and rather indicative of a studio system hobbled by legacy. This is in no way out to belittle what indeed appears onscreen, but for a piece designed to reintroduce the King Of The Monsters to a new generation, it does very little to impress beyond mild expectations. Worse yet, it plays as a half-baked allegory for more recent events in a way that never comes to any fruition. Outside of focusing on by-the-numbers, personality-deficient americans, the film never finds itself out of second gear. While it is much closer in aim to the G films of decades past, the end result is the equivalent of tasting a bottle of the most expensive water imaginable, and being unable to distinguish it from tap.

Beginning in 1999, a Japanese nuclear plant's US supervisor (Bryan Cranston) becomes a widower after strange seismic activity seems to herald a disaster, rendering what remains of the facility and the surrounding plant town as quarantined. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Philippines, a research team led by Professor Serizawa(Ken Watanabe) have just stumbled upon an unearthed and fossilized giant skeleton, along with a pair of massive egg pods(with one freshly opened). In the years after the incident, Joseph Brody(Cranston) has become something of an obsessed man, convinced that the public story regarding the plant incident is pure cover for something else. Having just recently been arrested back in Japan near the quarantine zone, Brody's now grown son, Ford (now an explosive ordinance disposal expert in the US Navy, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is tasked with heading overseas to retrieve him. Only daddy Brody's ravings about a cover-up turn out to be true, and something horrific and HUGE is being watched over at the old nuclear facility grounds. It is here, that both parties are brought together due to a now unstoppable threat to humankind.

And perhaps there is only one force of nature capable of ending the terror.

So, yes..Despite the ad campaign that front-loaded often harrowing scenes of destruction and even human casualties, this is more a collective homage to fifty years of TOHO's once-great-nightmare-turned signature superhero. And perhaps it needs to be said up front that for all that will be typed here regarding the film, it is also great leaps beyond the 1998 Roland Emmerich film. Without resorting to nearly as much disinterest in the source material as that film, what remains is something more akin to playing the needle perhaps a little louder than necessary. The groove Edwards' finds himself in, is largely due to both Max Borenstein's underwhelming script, and his own inability to lend the film a sense of dramatic pacing. (This is not the first time. His previous, the indie surprise, MONSTERS, suffers from falling into a comfort zone with characterization, not playing enough with the elements at hand.)  Everything that seems to happen onscreen is often borne out of utility rather than by character, and as such we spend too much time coasting through the film. And even though the story goes out of its way to build up toward our first look at Gojira in all his glory, the impact is largely diminished due to a severe lack of dramatic tension. Matters just happen, and this happens with great efficiency throughout.

Also not delivered as advertised, is the performance of Cranston who ends up merely being a story leaping point, rather than the central character. His casting almost feels stunt-y considering what we're left with. Taylor-Johnson is never given any real meat as the young Brody. And his family is granted even less. With Elizabeth Olsen as Elle, Ford's doctor wife, and Carson Bolde as his young son, we are merely given the semblance of a contemporary family caught in the middle of this avalanching crisis. One could argue that many a human character in a Godzilla film has been perfunctory to the monster on monster action, but to see these characters be less than simple ciphers in such a large production is a little disheartening. It even goes so far as to make the entire affair feel small, and lacking in any sense of real awe.

Think of it. A Godzilla film of this size and potential magnitude, it barely registers.

On the surface, Edwards' piece does dish out some terrific images, and the final battle royale between King G and the insectoid MUTO creatures is fun on an artistic level. Alexandre Dusplat's effective orchestral score is relatively memorable. But for all the talk of this being a Godzilla piece with greater emphasis on the humans at ground level, it all rings terribly distant and hollow. This was a golden opportunity to make a film equivalent to the original Ishiro Honda classic. An environmental horror tale. An emotionally stirring hymn to civilization's hubris in the face of nature, delivered with heartfelt potency. A chance to place us at the heart of a truly difficult dilemma concerning the fate of the world, and science's role in it. But all we get is a middle of the road redux, lacking in horror, character, or even fun. If there is anything thematic to glean from all of this, is that the piece lands on the idea that nature settles its own issues. Problems arise when we are never given enough illustration of this point, nor enough evidence aside from the expected destruction to back up this mode of thinking. Even Watanabe's portrayal of Serizawa is never given enough coverage for us to see his ideas as having any kind of greater merit. While the surface is at times captivating, there seems to be very little percolation beneath it.

About the only genuine response evoked by the film (outside of the occasional cheer for our hero) was during a gag when young Brody's little son exclaims that the monster battle happening on the news is that of "dinosaurs". That's a very real, and wonderful piece of humor that resembled what a real film can do when breaking a sweat. But far too often, this one feels like a series of occasional sprints. And for all the respect it pays to the past, and to Yoshimitsu Banno's original IMAX 3D concept from over a decade ago, there is something that simply doesn't work about forcing American characters into such a mythology. In a post-Pacific Rim world, we should be much better than this.

So, I ask again..Will it ever be enough?

One would like to say yes. But perhaps we need to wait another fifteen years?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Transcendence(2014) : Pfister's Directorial Debut Is Lost At Sea

I cannot help but be curious about the origins of Wally Pfister's directorial debut, TRANSCENDENCE, and what mindset found the premise worth exploring. Outside of some truly regressive feelings on the nature of technology, versus humanity's inability to let go, there seems to be something both frightened, and sad happening here. If the film's inspirations lie within decades of technophobic cinema, then TRANSCENDENCE plays well as a bizarre spiritual throwback. And while Pfister's connections to major Hollywood (He has long been the Director of Photography for the films of Christopher Nolan) are impressive, they seem to be in the service of something both unsettling, and hopelessly "disconnected".

Five years before a technological apocalypse, computer research luminaries, Will and Evelyn Caster (a sleepy Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall) are on the verge of a breakthrough in artificial intelligence with the hope of making the world a better place. But after an anti-tech terrorist attack leaves numbers in the computer development community dead, and Will poisoned by a radiation-tainted bullet, things seem grim. Until Evelyn considers the unthinkable. Based on a previous experiment involving a primate's uploaded consciousness into the Caster's incredible computer creation, PiNN, she considers doing the same with her ailing husband's mind. Upon agreement, and his inevitable passing, the computer rendition of Will is stunningly convincing. But this digital version of the AI genius seems far more ambitious than anyone (even Evelyn) could ever hope to control.

Without any further plot details, the film almost instantly falls apart once one considers the world that is established, and how these characters operate. While the Casters are one-noted, and hopelessly facile in their portrayals, the "luddite" terrorists that see this merging of flesh and machine to be feared, are laughably thin. Read back that last sentence for just a moment. The very idea that a faction that is against technology seems pretty comfortable in tracking and inevitably killing those who seem to empower them. An early line implies that these individuals are "ironic", and irrational feels like an attempt to justify their lack of depth. But it only leads to bigger questions regarding the theme of the piece. It doesn't help that the Caster's one close friend, scientist Max (Paul Bettany) , seems to espouse a more cautionary perspective regarding computation, and an inherent lack of a perfectly replicated soul. The argument ultimately whittles down to an almost old fashioned notion that decries the possibilities inherent in science. While Jack Paglen's script so badly wants to portray Max's perspective as a moral compass to the film's central questions, it cannot help but come off as shallow. Even Kate Mara's terrorist character seems primed to be a set of eyes to view the dilemma, but is undercut by having nearly nothing to do. A lot of underwritten characterization only serves to grant viewers no compass with which to work with, leaving the film in a confused fog.

But what truly burns about this whole debacle, is that as Pfister's debut film (not to mention an expensive one), this is one that reeks of an almost anti-futurist, but also anti-pluralist spirit. While the film wants to offer up good reasons for what takes place by the finale, there are also all the wet paper thin portrayals of both the terrorists and the common people that inhabit the story. Once the story takes us to a remote desert town, and Will's powers begin to fully manifest, there is a sinister air about the film that threatens to derail all that had come before. To make matters worse, the notion that technology empowers the poor in a way that is unbalanced is one that never feels any less creepy. While not stating it explicitly, there is a feeling throughout that such technological empowerment is akin to a zombie revolution; something also to be feared. And we haven't even covered the film's voice in who is to blame for all this. While technology is indeed an extension of who we are, the film seems more than comfortable in the blaming only two major things:

Both unchecked science & women.

And while the authorities inevitably swarm the burgeoning complex in the dust bowl, the film so vehemently wants us to question where our allegiances lie. Problems arise when it becomes clear that there is really noone here to identify with. And that becomes the largest thorn in TRANSCENDENCE's side. If the goal was to keep the perspective elusive until the very last minute, mission accomplished. With such one-dimensional characters and situations making the sound system rumble in the theater, the lack of focus never diminishes in annoyance. In a story regarding such heavy moral questions regarding existence and our evolving place in the scheme of life, an identification  figure is necessary. Sadly, Pfister and company never settle on one. Not one. And by the finale, hardly anything matters since caring has suddenly been removed from the art of filmmaking. The final product could not be more indifferent and illogical.

One cannot help but start wondering if Pfister did more second unit directing on The Dark Knight Rises than has been recorded. So much footage here echoes a lot of that film, and in the worst possible ways.

In the ever rapidly changing organic/tech landscape we are all living in, it is vital that our stories begin considering matters beyond fear. Jonze's Her, remains a shining example of this new philosophical direction. We live ever more connected to our devices than ever before. The world has begin to see incredible change. Not all positive, but nowhere near the melodramatic levels as displayed here. And the negative effects of this bold new realm cannot simply lie in the hands of the software itself. The heart of drama lies in our own failings, and in how we navigate life with ever new tools at our sides. TRANSCENDENCE implies our struggle to go beyond our limitations. And as a film that seems to rally against all the wondrous cultural, political, philosophical, and environmental changes that have come in the wake of the internet, it could not be a more misused title.

I hate this film.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Under The Skin(2013)Movie Thoughts

In a sea of blackness, we are immersed in a universe of circles, lulled towards the escalating tense sound of grinding strings. What looks to be an alignment of several celestial bodies moves across the frame as the strings grow louder and aggressive with intensity. As the alignment shifts into locked position, we also hear human vocal bites layered onto the almost organic collage of sound. And just as the tension could not grow any louder, the shapes blink, forming the center of a single human eye.

Black out. The noise cuts.

Late one evening in the hilly outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland..

A man on a motorcycle stops by a parked van near a darkened cliff, and pulls from it what seems to be the body of a young woman. A moment later, in a vibrant void of white, the dying woman’s clothing is taken by a nude female form, who then journeys to flesh out this new ensemble with items from a downtown mall. From here, the now fully decked out brunette takes control of the van, driving almost aimlessly through the city, seeking men—men without a clue of this woman’s origin, or what omen lies ahead for them.

Told with nearly zero dialogue (save for Johansson’s attempts to pick up non-actors off the street), and often with an almost voyeuristic zeal, Under The Skin is by no means an easy film to describe. Superficially, its premise seems lascivious and perhaps a bit eager to shock. From the outset, we know that our main character is not from any familiar world. But we do know that she requires the male gaze in order to complete what seems to be a singular mission on this planet: to seek male subjects. She mysteriously induces a compulsion in men to follow her to most certain doom. Even in one of the film’s most standout moments, she is so driven to acquire what she needs regardless of circumstance that, at a local beach, she neutralizes a swimmer who was amidst attempting to rescue a couple caught in the harsh waves. She even fails to recognize her fault in orphaning the baby of the lost couple, left crying alone on the windy shore. Nothing else matters. She may resemble one half of our species, but is without morality, nor basic human understanding outside of a compulsion to entice and entrap, making her a most unique audience surrogate.

From this already suspicious premise, one might mistake this as yet another excursion into the seedy underbelly of the urban Euro experience. All the telltale signs of films akin to the works of Von Trier are evident in regards to female protagonists, and their often ill-fated relations with men. However, what Jonathan Glazer(Sexy Beast, Birth) has in store is far more experiential and honest than even the Danish malcontent might consider. Scarlett Johansson’s turn as the mysterious figure in his Under The Skin, is much more than a dive into the darker sides of gender relations. It is an unrelentingly eerie and thoughtful daybreak bad dream where the audience is made an unwitting accomplice to a most unearthly series of fates.

Which seems to be the core concern of the film, the means by which females have been and continue to be viewed and treated in many corners of industrialized society. As we follow the figure’s exploits from the occasional van pickup, to the noisy clubs of downtown, and even to the overcast countryside, each new encounter is a rendition, an example. From drunken pickups, to pitiable meetings with the lesser seen, there is change and response that is accumulating within our lead. It’s in this, that we are as voyeurs, a part of this cycle. One that plays itself out in often languidly paced drives across town, and into her makeshift lair, where the unimaginable seems primed to happen again, and again.

Without the internal mindset hindered by emotional, political, and psychological baggage, we are in the realm of shape as definer. That she is seen as a type that is without fear of perception, her male suitors behave in numerous, often telling ways. Each variation a means of getting closer to another for a great variety of reasons. Through a character that is such a blank slate, we are now in the hands of filmmakers who are unafraid to tackle some of the more subconscious anxieties regarding such relations. As such, the film’s title denotes a dual meaning. With our lead shape’s journey through the film as some form of lifecycle, we are host to what it is to be perceived as a woman of the night. And what she encounters is at times disturbing, beautiful, and then ultimately tragic.

And let’s not go too deep into her motorcycle riding “minders”, who often clean up her occasional messes, and never speak a word. A striking addition of theme as these leather-clad riders are the only other elements in her functional world. Almost as if these are the men of infrastructure, facilitating that the experiment continue unabated.

This is the world that Glazer has fashioned with the confidence of a master. And while much of it does not impact as harshly as some may have declared, there is indeed something defiant & deeply humanist happening here. Johansson’s work here is both revelatory and spooky as a most bizarre, hyper simplified protagonist.  Everything conveyed in how she regards the surroundings, her gestures toward strangers, and even her own body is captured in ways that no films dealing with this so-called “alien female” archetype have done before. When she takes home a new specimen, it is portrayed with often a similar shooting and editing style, allowing prey to follow her into darkened, almost anatomical chasms. When she does this, it is a matter of course. Part of a ritual. Often without her reaching full state of undress. And what we do witness of this, is something that defies proper description. While the film may start by taking an angle that might bode negatively regarding women, there is a sharp counterpoint lying in wait. One that sneaks up on viewers as the story draws to an abrupt, painfully beautiful close.

Again, this is not a simple film to parse through. Glazer and company have successfully concocted one seriously nightmarish voyage that doesn’t offer any simple answers. That her life is comprised of reaching out to willing males, even to the detriment of her own identity, is possibly an admonishment of sorts. In an age where subtext is often the text and experimentation is often discouraged, this piece of work feels like a welcome throwback with new toys. Its visuals are often composed to a fault. Environments, while clearly urban and at times rain soaked, are tinged with an almost supernatural gloom. Even when our main character shares dialogue with unaware non-actors, the look is simply haunted. The music and sound design work almost as a stand alone project unto themselves. Mica Levi’s debut score is something of a wonder. Strings and beats often bordering on horror parody, then back into pure dread as rhythms mimic the cadence of a lone windshield wiper. As a whole, I may still be attempting to grasp what was achieved here, but it may just be the work of burdened inspiration. Something very personal had to be unleashed onto the world stage, no matter how discomforting. And even if the film never goes for deep shocks, its reverberations are indeed the kind that stick well beneath the surface long after the lights go up. This is by all accounts a fierce auteur work that could only happen with miraculous funding, and it is a most refreshing miracle at that.

So perhaps Under The Skin works best as a painterly summation of our current sexual impasse. Even as the world becomes more privy than ever regarding our relationships to other physical beings, there is a nagging fear that closeness will never be enough. If Glazer indeed sees the classic heterosexual model as merely one endless series of loops, then perhaps the film posits that perhaps the shape is far from enough to break it.