Saturday, August 29, 2015

Days Of Impact: When Action Comes Of Age

I recently had a series of prolonged discussions that centered on pieces that many agree have altered the action film landscape, and have stumbled upon a rare thought. There have been a films as of late that have helped alter the way we digest certain genres, and in many ways it feels like a grand shift has stealthily made itself known more prominently than ever. While it was indeed the comic book adaptation that saw itself in deep need up upping the thematic ante in the wake of Christopher Nolan, the once thrill-centric action film has pretty much seen itself dragged along. It likely wasn't a completely cognizant choice, but in lieu of being able to be exhilarated in a darkened theater, it's very possible that our intellects have at last caught up with our lizard brains. Our lust for being wowed is at last running up against our need for emotional catharsis. Sure, there will always be your standard meat and potatoes piece of genre, but to have noticed that some of the strongest pieces of pure action to come of this recent generation come with dramatic and thoughtful weight that is unusual for the form. Sure can be a controversial one for those more versed in traditional action, but it's a most welcome element.

Take for instance both Garret Evans' stunning Raid films as a prime example. Where the first flies out the barrel a relentless gauntlet of extreme martial arts and unrivaled tension, soon becomes a single-setting opera where the heroes and villains find themselves in a skirmish that leaves by a mere blemish on a clearly corrupt society. It all simply starts in classic video game fashion as a team of tactical police officers find themselves overwhelmed by an army of footsoldiers working for an apartment complex's single crime kingpin. But come the finale, it is revealed that the initial siege was but a power play by a bent cop, and his wishes to rise among the underworld's ranks(using the young cops as unassuming culprits). Add this to the soapy subplot centering on good cop protagonist, Rama (Iko Uwais), and his estranged brother, Andi (Donny Alamsyah), who has become a high ranking leader in kingpin, Tama's criminal enterprise. This plot, while atypical for this type of martial arts epic, the film not only eschews the expected dramatic payoff, but it also conveys the attraction gang life has in a society where the moral and the powerful have seemingly gone utterly south. There's simply little in the landscape of Rama's world that feels remotely advantageous for the good. And by the blistering finale, it is pretty clear that any victory had here is but a minor black eye, and that greater machinations are at play. No matter what our protagonist has survived, and learned, it is in the shadow of a greater threat.

Enter Raid 2, and Rama's turn from noble cop to undercover crusader which opens the canvas to an even more troubled vision. While being pressured by a "trusted" leader of a secret anti-corruption task force, as well as the death of a loved one, Rama is not thrust deep into the upper echelons of the vast criminal network that seems to run his city from top to bottom. From getting himself into prison for assault, to playing friend to the son of the city's great gangland mastermind, his mettle is tested on all fronts from the physical to the spiritual. He is witness to not only the son's simmering passion to rise to his father's level, but of the temptation brought upon by a violent new player with a plot to set the town's two largest syndicates against one another. All while the young cop and family man finds himself missing out on the crucial early years of his child's life. The intertwining plotlines of the second film amp up the drama without ever feeling forced or hypersimplified like most martial arts films. It confidently allows us to take in the troubles of this underworld power struggle, while driving home themes of family and how easily loyalty can find itself confused with fear and pride. While in many ways slower, and more patient than Raid 1, every action scene carries with it a surprising amount of dramatic weight. Even side characters whom we don't expect to feel something for or against, make a mark once the ferocious silat fights and car chases take collective breaths away. It's jarringly aware of what a little complexity and surehanded direction can do for action, and it never lets us off the hook in regards to the costs of even our hero's actions.

Something that helps define the tattered heroes of George Miller's Mad Max Fury Road.

A film that pretty much summed up my blockbuster summer this year, wasn't so merely for it's incredible presentation & execution. But also due to its resolute goal to sell so much complexity by way of pure cinema. Something genre cinema has long forgotten. While most films of the season do their best to obfuscate and bloat their casts in the name of forced notions of ticket value, Fury Road, allows the visuals and performances to sell the greater, more challenging ideas. In tradition of the original Max features, Miller and company virtually pack the screen with imagery and design that allows the viewer to piece together the philosophical landscape of Furiosa, Immortan Joe, Nux, the Wives, and ultimately Rockatansky, as he finds himself sucked into a post-patricarchal vortex of conflict. A hellishly wild ride punctuated by moments that argue for why it is we often find ourselves unwilling to take on the world so bent on subjugation and exploitation. Like Rama, to look at the world straight in the iris, is at times fraught with pain, and psychic suffering beyond imagining.

Because it's much easier to keep running, avoiding the hard work that comes with community, Max has found himself untethered from others. He has gone nearly feral from years of self-isolation and failure to champion others he has run across in his travels. He has lost far too much, and can only see himself fail again should he help shoulder the cause of the hard driving turncoat, Furiosa. The Immortan's trusted War Rig driver, who has seen far too much pain to do nothing about it. As the film's very sparse dialogue conveys, it is redemption she seeks, while his quarry seek hope. Something Max has seemingly long left in oceans of dust. He is even reminded of his failures on this particular adventure when he injures someone in the process of trying to escape on his own. But what comes of the journey, is a carefully crafted tale of redemption on the part of both warriors, as their combined efforts with Joe's runaway wives creates an unlikely family. Especially when they are joined by the sickly, and overzealous Warboy, Nux, who becomes an unlikely compatriot.

The triumph of Fury Road, largely resides in an almost mathematical method of pure sensory input, what it means to rejoin an organic collective in the face of toxic individualism. Furiosa, while using her knowhow to take the women to a mythic "green place", finds a kinship in men who aren't beholden to humans as shields or breeding stock. And Nux, finds that his world had for too long been kept under a fragile dome of control most of his life, and sees another way of life. (Or at the very least, a cause worth giving himself wholeheartedly to.) As the group find themselves unable to journey to this mythic other place, it is in revolution that change is ultimately claimed. And this is while Joe's murderous armada of dogma-injected warriors and crazies scrape for what little remains of their world. In a very real sense, Joe's Citadel and people represent the nadir of selfish scavenging, death, and greed. The film as a whole centers on what new forms of masculinity can emerge while dominator beliefs cannibalize themselves into oblivion. Max is at odds with what he is, and finds himself a blood conduit for a new world that is raging to be born from the ashes of a long powerful, yet stagnant one.

It's not only my favorite film of the year because it is an incredible feat of action filmmaking. It is. But because it highlights what action can be when it cares about its people and its thoughts. Everything on camera matters, and it is presented with a passion that is simply rare for any genre today. In an era where we could show the masses just about anything, it warms the heart to know that passion still exists beyond the spectacle. That it has meaning to the maker. And like any art form, that meaning can move emotional and intellectual mountains. It's more than heart and muscle, it's a means to move the world itself into action. Perhaps in this time period, the status quo simply won't do, and these landmarks are but reminders of the importance of changing the flow by all and any means. It's movement with purpose, and that's especially exciting. 


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lost Soul (2015) Movie Thoughts

The more one spends around me, the more they discover my own personal fascination with filmmakers and best laid plains gone awry. From Cimino to Jodorowsky, there is just something very telling and deeply resonant about the always dicey promise of a large art project. And the pitfalls that can often derail even the most confidently assembled team embarking on something that on the surface feels surefire. Even when talking future cult favorites like Apocalypse Now, or Blade Runner, there leak tales of botched production concepts, personality clashes, and prolonged schedules that could render any studio nervous, desperate for damage control before the film even reaches screens. Often, the things that often trip up such projects can lead to what many might consider industry lore. But few personal apocalypses can possibly rival the endless tunnel of misfortune that seemed determined to dog the major studio debut of one Richard Stanley, and his proposed version of HG Wells' The Island Of Doctor Moreau. And with Lost Soul, David Gregory, in almost tall tale fashion, gives us one of the most crushing tales of art undone by cosmic forces imaginable.

Before sharing any further thoughts on Gregory's work here, let's just delve a tiny bit into my thoughts on the early work of the film's main subject. Like many film fans of the 1990s, I was introduced to the rogue stylings of director Stanley through my first viewing of the brilliant dystopian-horror hybrid HARDWARE(1990). To this day, his mini-budgeted indie dynamo remains one of the most consistently textured science fiction films in the post Blade Runner age. Pitting the denizens of a futuristic slum against a resurrected top secret cybernetic killing machine, the film is an inventive overdose of latter-Reagan era rage, fueled by an international cast, and some impressive puppetry.  Made on virtually crumbs, and jam-packed with enough used future and oppressive atmosphere for an entire goth-industrial club scene, HARDWARE remains an important footnote in the annals of independent genre cinema. My familiarity with his work with bands such as Fields Of The Nephilim, and others, it was clear that this was a filmmaker with an affinity for the fringe, and esoteric notions layered in a nihilism that was frankly refreshing in an era where risk was often shunned, and edge often flattened out before camera even roll..

So when Dust Devil died kind of a quiet death, and talks of a Moreau update were in the air, hopes were high.

Flash forward to 1996, and my shock when Stanley's name didn't appear on any of the finished film's ad campaign. Soon after, I had heard of tensions leading to his ousting, as well as stories of weirdness on the set as Stanley and crew sought to film in an isolated beachside section of Cairns in Australia. But what Lost Soul presents to us, is a creative spark, that slowly builds into a tire fire of incredible proportion. One might almost want to cry fake. It simply seems too horrible to be true. And soon after that, it dissolves into something worse. One after another, the film makes strides to remind you of the human toll, and of how real all of this is, even when chronicling the erstwhile director's clearly deteriorating mental state. There is even a chapter detailing Stanley's alleged retreat into one of the beach's highest tree, refusing to come down. Yet despite all of this, the piece remains quite empathetic to the plight of Stanley, as he is forced to walk away from his ambitious project, and then the surreality of the journey truly begins.

Packed with testimonials from numerous major players including Fairuza Balk, Edward R. Pressman, Rob Morrow, and others reveal more about the doomed project than many might have ever wanted to know. Also very painful are the stories of what came of the final main cast, and how that arc of fate only served to worsen the film. Given what many have read or heard about stars Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, little prepares one for what is revealed here. And even former New Line head, Robert Shaye, long distanced from "the house that Freddy built", doles out some impressive insight into the whole sordid affair. But largely, it's Balk who provides a great deal of the film's tether to what was truly lost in all the madness. A friend of Stanley's throughout the entire ordeal, and someone who's career never truly rebounded in lieu of this, Lost Soul is also a tear-stained love letter to all creators who arrived on the landscape without many of the same philosophical ambitions of your atypical commercial asset. It's a whirlwind of a film documentary, and one of the most eye-opening ones of its kind since Hearts Of Darkness.

Only in Hollyweird.  

Friday, August 14, 2015

Creep (2014) Movie Thoughts

Driving up a mountainous road, looking forward to a quick 1,000 dollars based on an ad, videographer, Aaron finds the lonely cabin, and quickly is surprised to meet the instantly quirky, Josef. Upon the first few minutes of meeting the uncommonly friendly host, it's established that the day's work will consist of following him as he wishes to create a parting video for his unborn son. You see, Josef discloses that after a long battle with cancer, this latest onslaught seems terminal, and to leave something for his wife and child to remember him by is the order of the day. Only, as the day grows on, Josef's behavior becomes increasingly strange, and the clearly unsettled Aaron finds himself (and the audience) captive to not only the most primal of fears, but possibly even his own conscience. Part Duplass Brothers comedy, part found footage freak-fest, Creep plays like a mostly well-executed prank complete with some of the most disquieting moments in horror I have experienced in a spell.

True to these statements, the piece feels like an examination of not only this pair of characters as motivations are questioned, but of the line between uncomfortable comedy and deep disturbance. As we assume the role of the constantly filming Aaron, we are witness to Josef's strange, often friendly sounding attempts to maintain a facade, and it becomes a game of when that final show will drop like a block of lead. Early on, we are introduced to a wolf motif that will find itself echoing throughout as if the film is completely willing to let us all in on the gag. As in just about all found-footage pieces, we become voyeur, and find ourselves at the mercy of the cameraperson's own demeanor. And in the case of Creep, it is of a lead that is clearly in this situation out of his control. Expectations are played with like a dangling mouse in a cat's claw, as Aaron begins making decisions that border on forcing the story, but it's also hard to completely blame him as the story unfolding exposes that perhaps he too harbors skeletons that render him an ideal counterpoint to Josef's increasingly erratic actions. At some points it becomes hard to tell who is being more deceptive.

One of Creep's biggest arrows in its quiver though, is the intimate casting and performances between Duplass and Brice, who apparently improvised the entire film. There is a constant thread of unreliable storytelling between the two men, that it becomes unbearable with how much the truth seems desperate to get out(even if perhaps we don't really want to know). Duplass' Josef, is something of a revelation here, as a man who clearly is suffering from something beyond the tumor he speaks of. He never wavers in his ability to get beneath the skin, and stay there. And Brice's straight man aura becomes an effective barometer for each scene he tries desperately to get out, paycheck be damned.

For a film of even this format, it is easily one of the most minimal outside of the original Paranormal Activity, where there is so very little to see, but the dread thickens to a handsome degree. And while the film clocks in at an incredibly lean 82 minutes, the balancing act between laughter and jitters almost hits an imbalance during the last third. Even so, the performances and sheer minimalism of the whole makes for one of the more effective uses of the verité format in some time. Brice does a fairly sharp job of making it all feel very much in the real world for a great majority. And as the often clueless Aaron, he makes for a mostly understandable worm on a hook. And as such, one can easily conjure mental images of festival audiences taking some real theater escape route scanning during screenings. When one isn't giggling at the absurd eerieness, one couldn't be blamed if they felt compelled to run out of the theater a few times. One would be hard pressed to not have experienced this at least once in their lives.    

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ethan Hunt & The Power Of Self-Effacement

Art, is always open to new opportunity.

Even when speaking of highly commercial vehicles, often designed as a print making license.

Which is what makes this creature so curious when talking about Tom Cruise, and his artistic management arc throughout the twenty year history of his Mission Impossible film series. We have seen film franchises wear different garb from work to work before, but rarely has it been as varied and telling like Ethan Hunt's globe-trotting adventures with the ever besieged IMF. And with Rogue Nation, the flight pattern turns yet again, into what at last feels like something out of a wholly new cloth from where they started. Sitting in the darkened theater this time, felt so much like a final maturation stage. A means of balancing out all that had come before, in ways that perhaps weren't evident as the series began back with Brian De Palma, back in 1996.

Mission Impossible (1996)

What struck me most about Ethan Hunt's first go-round as point-man, and ultimately leader, is how painterly, and yet eager it was to ease the public into an increasingly complex spy cartoon in lieu of the just-then ending Cold War. Fan-kicking plot twist aside, this first piece is clearly concerned with establishing Cruise as the essential attraction, while De Palma's pastiche does its part to create a comprehensible world despite the often iffy plot mechanics. What results, often feels more akin to a three-stage video game from the Nintendo 64 era. Three major set pieces, barely held together by a plot to make sure this is Ethan Hunt's story. A self-conscious move, perhaps, but a star-laden, often lovely to behold piece of pop silly. It's a shallow ride, but the Prague job and the Langley mission remain worth price of admission.

Mission Impossible 2 (2000)

Made in the eye of the Hollywood/Hong Kong Gush era, John Woo's bizarre entry to the new series finds us in some truly bizarre, and hopelessly idiosyncratic territory. Taking a page from Hitchcock's Notorious, Ethan Hunt's mostly solo outing as a single point in a most awkward love triangle remains the series' most egregious misstep. Instead of offering up more ensemble fun, gadgets, and intrigue, all we get is one confused muddle regarding a killer virus, and a showcase for Cruise to exist in a post-Matrix landscape. He climbs desert cliffs, he wears black, he's got the light of God on his side. It's a bizarre manga wannabe, complete with waltzing cars, goofy dialogue(Wait, Robert Towne was involved?), and some seriously silly multi-camera slow-motion martial arts moves. It's Cruise at his most self-conscious, and as juvenile as the series could possibly be. It's a reminder of an era this Kaijyu has no interest in revisiting, save for the final 25 minutes that are both breathtaking in technique, but laughable in context.

Mission Impossible 3 (2006)

After the perplexing success of MI:2, and the subsequent backlash that resulted, moves were under way to make the third entry something far more urgent and emotional. Enter newbie filmmaker, J.J. Abrams, who brings with him his larger than life television persona to the big screen, and comes out swinging. Ramping up the ridiculousness (Ethan falls in love, attempts to live a double life), somehow, this first round via the Bad Robot team, takes the bombastic Michael Bay approach, and grants the series an emotional pull that propels this into some seriously hectic places. Never not moving, and uncompromisingly dark for a PG-13 film, Abrams and Cruise fashion something that is far more personal than the previous films, and posits a formula that would come to solidify the series from this point going forward. No matter how one feels about Abrams, or his since then well-established form of pop cinema, MI:3 is rough and tumble fun only made more potent by having Philip Seymour Hoffman as your frightening antagonist. Pre-Dark Knight, it made a great case against post 911 policy with a little added burn to spare. And unlike the previous, there is a sense that a more colorful spirit is entering the mix, one that is less about our star, and more about the world he inhabits.

Always a plus.

 Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

Four films in, and Cruise and Co. finally strike gold. Three films later, and with the addition of animation genius, Brad Bird, the Bad Robot crew live up to their promise with one wild ride. From a Russian prison break, to infiltrating the Kremlin, to scaling the Burj Khalifa building, to the insane finale in Mumbai, this is classic MI adventure territory here made with almost mathematical care for geography, character, and action. As Ethan finally settles into what becomes an all-new IMF team (featuring welcome additions, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton,  & Jeremy Renner), their existence could not be in greater danger as catastrophic events have rendered the IMF completely disavowed, forcing Hunt and cohorts to scale the world, clear their names, and save the world from nuclear devastation. Still true to the series' more over the top worldview, the Bad Robot approach serves the whole with class and energy. On top of this, Cruise at last feels confident enough to relinquish the reins to an instantly appealing group of characters ready to share the spotlight. It finally feels like the television series on a grand scale, complete with clever fake-outs, wild stuntwork, and crowd-pleasing humor.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Intense to think that this has been going on for nearly two decades, and sees no signs of slowing. Cruise, now with his third collaboration with writer/director Chris McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, Edge Of Tomorrow) finds himself and the franchise wisening like a solid oak. Rogue Nation, while taking a charming look back at the entire series before it, also feels like a proud, experienced veteran, ready to accept age as consequence. In this one, Ethan and what remains of the entire IMF (meaning him and fellow agents) after being quashed by the US government, are forced to contend with their most cunning adversary, a supposedly nonexistent army of once powerful spies bent on destroying the infrastructure from the inside; the IMF's mirror opposite. Not ready to turn in the gear for good, Cruise and company run across a mysteriously solid agent in Rebecca Ferguson, are being dogged by a more than over it CIA head, Alec Baldwin, and troubled by a frighteningly cold Sean Harris. It's a refreshing, ultimately satisfying hybrid of action spectacle, and old fashioned spy yarn of a previous era.

It's so happily old school, that the whole feels just as thrillers once did, granting the audience enough room to breathe before the biggest surprises, which weren't geared toward screaming in our ears. There are also some great hidden easter eggs celebrating the previous films strewn throughout. It's amazing to see such a series turn such a corner, and welcome something more akin to a giddy airport novel, complete with quiet exchanges, dark alleys, and some brutal close-quarters combat. It's as mature as a series like this could be without losing the initial concept's more fun loving spirit. With this film, Cruise and company seem to be acknowledging the ups and downs that have led us here, and it's done with a kind of panache and adventurousness that only comes with growing up. Much like his film equivalent, Cruise is ready for facing insurmountable obstacles, but he sure as hell could not do it alone.

So great to see that revelation expressed with such elegance in what could so easily have ignored it.