Thursday, March 24, 2016

Visiting and Revisiting: Starcrash (1978) Pt. 2

This is Part II of a two-part discussion about Luigi Cozzi's 1978 Italian "rip-off" of Star Wars, Starcrash. To read the first part of this article, visit my buddy Rik Tod Johnson's Cinema 4 Pylon website at: 


Rik: The chief influence of this film is clearly George Lucas' Star Wars; that cannot be denied. But there is a huge dose of the legacy of the late Ray Harryhausen at play as well. Stop-motion animation, not even close to being as fluid as Ray's patented Dynamation process, plays a big role in this film in a couple of scenes. The one that played a big part in coaxing me to the theatre was the sword fight between Hasselhoff and a pair of robots that look like Gyro Gearloose from the old Uncle Scrooge comics constructed them. They even look like they have stylized duckbills. Hasselhoff picks up Gortner's lesser form of lightsaber (it now reminds me more of the way that a Schwartz was used in Spaceballs) and has a battle against the extremely jerky, sword-wielding automatons. The swordplay is actually surprisingly engaging, even if the animation is definitely and expectedly subpar to its influences (most definitely the skeleton fights in Harryhausen's Jason and Sinbad films).

Where the stop-motion animation really fails for me, however, is in the scene with the giant "female" robot (with titanic, possibly titanium, breasts for some reason -- who knew robots breastfed?) on the beach. The entire sequence is clearly modeled after the Talos scene from Harryhausen's classic Jason and the Argonauts, but it is almost painful to watch, so awkward are the relatively simple movements involved in the scene. You could say that Talos in the original movie was also jerky and awkward, but he was a normally inanimate statue that had just been magically freed from its base. Talos was towering in stature and composed of metal, like the "female" robot here, but its limbs were not built for movement at all, merely to support its mass as a piece of art; hence the jerkiness in its motions. However, Talos is imbued with remarkable life by his creator -- that god being Harryhausen -- and as stiff as he is naturally portrayed, he has clearly been brought to life fully and his muscles and joints move, albeit deliberately, in a surprisingly life-like manner. The robot in this film clearly has working knees and elbows, and therefore it must be surmised that it is meant to walk around and perform its duties, most likely to guard the planet upon which it resides. However, it moves every bit as jerkily as Talos, even more so due to an obvious lower range of talent attempting to duplicate the moves of the great Harryhausen. Of course, maybe the Amazons on the planet were just inept engineers and technicians, and they made a shitty robot that could barely move as required.

Aaron: That giant robot not only had breasts, but large gear shaped nipples, as well! In a good film, striking design choices like that can easily be explained as atmosphere-enhancing aesthetics, but in Starcrash it just made me wonder, while watching that scene, why the guard had been built that way. I suppose the fact that it’s a planet of Amazons might explain why they’d choose a feminine form, but it did seem strangely sexual. And why hadn’t they bothered animating even a basic bend of the arm at least once? The animation looked like something a bright, enthusiastic nine-year-old would make in their backyard. I mean, it’s great looking for a nine-year-old playing with his action figures, but for an actual movie projected in theatres, it’s laughably subpar.

Speaking of references, I really got a kick out of how blatantly they stole the look of the Martian mastermind from Invaders From Mars for that of the judge that sentences Akton and Stella to hard labor for their various crimes. On top of those references already noted, there’s at least one shot that seems to directly echo Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Zarth Arn bears a more than passing resemblance to Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, and some of the ship-launching sequences look suspiciously like those in Battlestar Galactica. That last one may be nothing more than coincidence considering how close their releases are to each other.

Rik: Starcrash gets a lot of surprising mileage out of just how colorful and charmingly fantasy-like its vision of outer space is. The stars at night may or may not be big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, but they are bigger and brighter here. Every planet, moon, and star is represented in the sharpest of hues, and whatever demerits can be attributed to the film on nearly every other level, one cannot deny that much of the film is very pleasing to the eye. I am only watching the film on DVD, and it is awash in the most brilliant colors, far more than I remember. I can only imagine that the Blu-ray I gave you for Christmas is even more pleasing (not that you have seen the DVD version).

Aaron: I have not seen the DVD as you say, but I have watched some clips online (and on the special features) that feature some of the footage before it was touched up, and the Blu-ray is indeed pretty great looking. Aside from some blurriness here and there as a result of aged film stock, everything is pretty eye-popping. There is one downside to this, however, as the added clarity betrays some of the shots of deep space to look like exactly what they are: multicolored light bulbs placed against a black background.

But yes, of course, the visuals are great fun. The exteriors of the ships are off kilter and interesting (though the ship from the beginning, the one that the emperor’s son escapes from, looks a bit like a guitar frame someone stuck some plastic bits to and then spray-painted grey), and the interiors are full of oddly designed furniture and decorated in primary, often clashing colors.

Rik: As I mentioned earlier, in that attack on the Galactic starship at the beginning of the film, Count Zarth Arn's minions use a weapon that creates a field of floating red spheroids that are undeterred by walls or atmosphere, and simply drift through everything in their path. The red spheroids exert a mind-altering force that serves to drive the crew of the starship mad and ultimately cause the starship to explode. This is the terrible weapon that, later in the film, Stella and her pals are recruited to stop. It is a very simple but weirdly effective scene. The spheroids are never actually touching or even in the same plane as anything else; they are merely superimposed by the filmmakers over everything (according to Starcrash expert Stephen Romano, the images are of various objects floating in a fish tank). While the effect looks as low-rent and cheesy as anything in the rest of the film, I found it to be one of the more memorable images from the film, and it has stuck with me since that first teenage showing. The same effect is used later in the film, on an even larger scale, when Stella's ship is attacked. This time, the effect grows even more psychedelic, with other elements added to the superimposed imagery. Watching it now, even seeing how simple it is, it kind of holds up for me as one of my favorite moments in the film. What did you think of the use of the red balls?

Aaron: I must admit it didn’t quite affect me in the same way. I agree it’s a nice enough image, and a clever use of their limited budget, but the weapon itself seemed so… ill defined. The characters never refer to globular red balls floating through the ship, and instead repeatedly say they were attacked by groups of monsters. But there’s really nothing monstrous about them, other than how unsettling it would be to travel through space and suddenly find yourself inside a red lava lamp. There was a lack of physicality to them that I found hard to connect with, and I couldn’t really suspend my disbelief enough for them to read as menacing in any way. They do remind me, however, of Rover, that giant white ball that acts as a security system in The Prisoner. That’s a similarly cheap and spherical effect that nonetheless still unsettles me when I see it.

Rik: The Prisoner is such a great show, and yes, Rover has always unsettled me, even to this day. Getting back to the red blobs, I did find it amusing that one of the very first things that Starcrash historian and DVD commentator Stephen Romano says when the scene pops up is to discount the theory that the filmmakers have merely superimposed an image of a lava lamp over the rest of the film. It made me chuckle because that is what my friends and I have always figured it was over the years.

Watching Starcrash now, Caroline Munro is every bit as lovely as I remember her, but there is an odd thing that must be told about her performance. Even though she is a British actress, Munro's dialogue was dubbed for its Western release by Candy Clark, who was married to Marjoe Gortner, who plays Stella's super-powered sidekick, Akton, in the film. Supposedly, when they redubbed the film, both Munro and her husband, Judd Hamilton (who played the loyal robot, Elle), were not flown over to America to save expenses, and so Clark and character actor Hamilton Camp were used in their places. It's a shame that we don't get to hear Munro's own voice as this is her biggest role in a film, and because I find Clark's line readings to be as off-kilter and often stiff as many of her own performances. Though I do adore Candy Clark in certain films, I don't think she is a particularly adept actress, and her voice doesn't quite match some of Munro's reactions emotionally. That said, the only voice I find annoying in the film is that of Elle the robot. The Texas twang with which Camp imbued the robot in the English dub is quite tiring and ridiculous, and it adds undoubtedly to the film's cheese factor.

Physically, Munro is jaw dropping gorgeous as Stella Star. She only wears her skimpy leather bikini outfit for the first chunk of the film, and as a teen, I was upset that her outfits gets increasingly less provocative as the film progresses. By the end of the film, Stella is completely covered up in a full bodysuit and cape (and ultimately, a space helmet). While one would look at any another movie for its psychological implications (has the hell-bent Stella been tamed by her conversion from bikini-wearing smuggler to demure heroine?), the real reason here seems to be Munro wanting more to wear in the film than just a leather bikini. On one of the audio commentaries, Romano quotes Harlan Ellison as saying that they had to ugly up Munro a bit for the film so that the cameras wouldn't melt. I've looked around to verify this quote (unsuccessfully so far), but I do have to agree that such a thing might have been possible.

Does Caroline Munro affect you in the same way, sir, or is my lingering affection merely a by-product of my misspent youth?

Aaron: All I can say is that Caroline Munro is delightfully cute, and it was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours watching her traverse the stars. I can only imagine what my opinion would be had I been exposed to her in my formative years. However, it saddens me to know that I can’t really appreciate her performance in this film, as her lines were dubbed by someone else. She certainly appears to be giving it her all, but the lines come out a bit stale, which is a problem that affects almost everyone in the cast, even those who were able to dub their own dialogue. You mention in particular disliking Hamilton Camp’s portrayal of Elle, and while I can’t argue with you, I have to say I kind of enjoyed the hillbilly twang he gave the robot. It was such an out of place detail that some part of me loved the randomness of having a robot in this fantasy galaxy speak like an extra on Hee Haw.

I would like to take a moment to talk about Marjoe Gortner’s character, Akton. As I said, he seems like a Han Solo analog at first, but turns out to be more Obi Wan Kenobi. That may not be entirely accurate, but he’s certainly supposed to be Starcrash’s version of a Jedi master, complete with light saber. But it continually bothered me how little they go into Akton’s powers or background. He just randomly exhibits new powers whenever the plot demands, and while no one ever expects him to have these powers, no one ever questions them either. Discussing plot holes or story inconsistencies seems almost beside the point for this film, though. Starcrash feels beyond criticism, in a way, as if the normal rules of storytelling don’t apply to it. Still, I think a little bit more information about this character would have been much appreciated.

Rik: No one is ever going to mistake Starcrash for Star Wars. But I also think that some of the spaceship design is pretty interesting. One of the ships is even named after science fiction author Murray Leinster, who specialized in pulp adventures such as this (though his works were often more elevated intellectually than Starcrash). By the time I saw this film, I was not only immersed in the technology of Star Wars, but also Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers (I actually watched the TV pilots for both series in theatres). I was swamped with outer space dogfighting, and so when I finally did get to see this film, I had already gotten a bit tired of spaceships due to the over-saturation of the market. Honestly, I really just wanted the film to get to the parts with Stella, so maybe my teenage boy sex drive had overtaken my patience with everything else. Watching the film since, though, I really enjoy many of the ship scenes, especially the quite appropriate design of the evil Count's ship, which looks like a giant, clawed hand.

Aaron: The ships are great, and straddle the line between innovative and old-fashioned. Some of the ships are clearly on tracks, and look like the planes that would attack Godzilla in his early decades, but then some of them are quite interesting and feature more detailed movement. Zarth Arn’s fist-shaped ship (try saying that five times fast) is the clear standout, though it does beg the question; what is that design for? Have you ever wondered why Zarth Arn would need five extendable digits on his space fortress? They don’t appear to provide any protection or added benefits beyond being a cool visual gimmick. Then again, given how flamboyant Zarth Arn is in his fashion sense and demeanor, that would probably be enough for him. In a quick side note, Joe Spinell as Zarth Arn really reminded me of Dave Grohl, which gave me a quick chuckle any time he was stomping around the screen.

Having now seen the film two-and-a-half times, I think I might be done with it for a while. I enjoyed it, but I think I’ll let it sit in my memory for a little while, where I can let the neat visuals and the fun swashbuckling moments overshadow the more perfunctory plot motions. Seeing the film for the first time as a man in his late thirties, I think that might be the best way to experience this film; as a burst of juvenile excitement. Best to allow it to sit in your mind and remind you of how totally awesome sword-fighting robots, spaceship dogfights, and the very idea of ‘the haunted stars’ can be.

Rik: Obviously, the design of Zarth Arn’s fist-shaped ship is so he can pull four of the fingers back to flip the bird at his enemies. He’s just that type of guy. I see your point about Spinell reminding you of Dave Grohl, and I must admit it did cross my mind briefly and made me chuckle a bit. Spinell, as he often does, sort of reminds me of the younger and not yet enormously rotund Ron Jeremy as well.

I, too, am probably done with Starcrash for a good while. Having just watched it about five more times in the past couple of months, I think it is burned in pretty good for the time being. In those two months though, my estimation for the film has gone up ever so slightly, but not so much that I ever forget my long-running disappointment with the film. Loves and hates that stem from childhood or your teen years are awfully hard to shake. I still think Caroline Munro is one of the most beautiful women to ever appear on the movie screen, but I also think Starcrash is well below what constitutes a good film, even on a pure entertainment level. That said, were I ever to throw a video party again (not that I have in the past twenty years), this might be one that I would choose to show everyone a crazy, weird time and allow everyone to riff at will.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Run All Night

Liam Neeson is so far into his second career as a soulful, grieving action hero that it can be hard to remember a time when he was more known for films like Schindler's List, Love Actually, and Michael Collins. Part of what has made him so successful in this role is that he never seems to be phoning it in. Liam Neeson commits fully to the sometimes-preposterous action films he's been starring in to a level far beyond what they might otherwise warrant. Simply by signing on to a film he's raised its cultural and critical cachet. And yet, the formula is showing signs of decay. His character descriptions are starting to read like self-parody, and the plotlines and stylistic touches are beginning to blur together. In Run All Night, Neeson's third film with director Jaume Collet-Serra (the others are Non-Stop and Unknown, with a fourth one on the way!), he plays an aging hitman for the mob who hasn't worked in years, but is kept around by the boss (Ed Harris) out of sentimental reasons. Neeson's wife is dead, his son wants nothing to do with him, he's never seen his grandkids, and he's a punchline to everyone he used to work with, resorting to playing Santa Claus at a Christmas party for the rest of the gang in order to get a few hundred bucks to fix his heater. The trouble starts, in a manner too convoluted for me to care about detailing, when Ed Harris' hothead son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) threatens the life of Liam Neeson's son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), prompting Neeson to shoot him, and Harris to vow his revenge.

This setup seems pretty strong, bolstered by a cast more than capable of giving this material weight and resonance, and overseen by a director who has experience with the type of grim action pieces Liam Neeson's new fans have come to expect. Maybe it's all of the great old school, straightforward action films I've been watching in recent weeks, but Run All Night seemed like nothing more than a missed opportunity. The plot I described up above seems like the perfect jumping off point for a no-nonsense action film with shadings of Greek tragedy in the relationship between its two leads. I hate to compare a movie I'm watching to the one I've got in my head, but I couldn't stop thinking about what Walter Hill might have done with this in his heyday, or what Nicolas Winding Refn would have done with it today. Instead the film we got is a portentous mess that squanders the amazing chemistry Neeson and Harris bring to their brief scenes together.

And chemistry they do have. Ed Harris brings an unforced intensity to every part he plays, while Neeson brings a wounded, slightly hangdog seriousness to these action films, and the two work great together. In only a couple of scenes they sell the idea that these two completely different individuals are actually lifelong friends that have drifted far apart over the years, but still enjoy each other's company. The rest of the cast is a little shakier in comparison. Joel Kinnaman is a decent enough actor, though he's a bit of a non presence here. Nick Nolte shows up in a brief cameo that was delightfully unexpected, and yet didn't really amount to much. The real dud, however, is Common as an almost supernaturally efficient hitman. His weird sci-fi appearance and odd facial makeup (I think they meant to give him a harelip, but it just looks like he's just suffering from a bad cold sore) seem to have been airlifted in from another movie.

Run All Night is a dark film, in more than just plot. The film is murky and artfully underlit, distorting the action scenes sometimes to the point of abstraction. After awhile it became visual white noise; two or more characters would converge, the screen would get all choppy and blurry while I could hear the unmistakable sounds of fists hitting chests and skulls hitting walls, and then someone would run away, and I would assume they had just won the fight. It was hard to get a sense of where the characters were and what they were doing at any time, a problem made paradoxically worse by Collet-Serra's repeated tendency to link scenes by zooming the camera quickly through the city to focus on what other characters are doing at other locations. This was intended to give the film a sense of scope to Neeson's journey as he races to keep his estranged family out of the clutches of Harris' goons, and to ground it in a real and definable place, but it came out as distancing, giving physical spaces an abstract feeling, removing them from the real world.

In the end, Run All Night's biggest problem is one of expectation. For a film centered around -and titled after- the concept of continuous movement and escape, the film sure does spend a lot of time with characters who are just sitting and talking in underlit rooms. The best, or at least most memorable, of Liam Neeson's action films, like The Grey or the first Taken film, have benefited from a constant sense of forward momentum. They put Neeson's grim determination to work, propelling the film along with a certain sense of fatalistic energy. Run All Night, on the other hand, stops and starts so often that by the time the end comes around (which, due to the cold open, we've seen most of already), my interest had well and truly deflated.

Final Rating: 2.5(out of 5)

Monday, February 08, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: John Wick

Keanu Reeves gets a bad rap as an actor, in my opinion. He may not be the world's greatest living thespian, or even in the top 50, but he's not really a bad actor either. He has an unflappably stoic persona, and a very limited range, which sometimes makes his more emotional scenes a bit uncomfortable, but he also has an appealing presence on screen. It's what made him so effective as Neo in the Matrix films, but also made him woefully ridiculous in Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, I've always been a fan, and I enjoy seeing the choices he makes in his career. He's a guy who clearly fell in love with the art of stuntwork and fight choreography, and has molded his career around some solidly populous dramas and romantic comedies that allow him to make a few flops like 47 Ronin. His directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, reads as an ode to Hong Kong filmmaking and old school fight choreography. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it, as he clearly understands how to use the camera in concert with the actors dueling on screen, and is probably the purest representation of that style ever made with an English speaking audience in mind.

As the Michael Bay-ification of summer blockbusters continues, with summers full of overstuffed, overly CGI-assisted tentpole action films, it's good to see that the art of the stunt is not gone. For years now the most interesting work being done for fans of no-frills action has been done in the direct-to-video market, where fight choreography still places emphasis on the choreography part of that equation, and a lack of time and money leads to a narrative paring down to the absolute essentials of a story. Films carrying on the tradition of Asian action filmmaking (simple plots to support exquisitely crafted motion) like Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, or even the last two Universal Soldier sequels, have been offering straightforward, mythic, solidly constructed action thrills of a type that seems almost nonexistent in the current crop of billion dollar blockbusters. It's as if the stuntmen and fight coordinators, finding they weren't as in-demand with the major studios as they used to be, went off and started making their own movies. Which, as it turns out, is pretty much what's happened.

John Wick was written by Derek Kolstad, whose only previous credits were a pair of direct to video Dolph Lundgren flicks, and it marks the directorial debut of Chad Stahelski, a stuntman who began his career with the original Point Break in 1991. John Wick clearly showcases a love of physical stunts and well staged fight scenes. While some of the shots were enhanced with CGI, mainly blood effects & green screen composites for some of the car stunts, most of what you see on the screen was actually rehearsed and filmed as you see it. The film also cuts out a lot of the bloat that can creep into action movies, and the story can be tidily summed up as 'ex-assassin gets back in the game for one last time on a quest for revenge. There are some quirks to that story (the revenge is for a cute puppy), some details to add some depth (the revenge is against the son of his old boss), and some impressive nods at world building. In fact, a lot has been made about that world building, as John Wick inhabits the type of criminal underworld normally only seen in comic books. All the assassins hang out at The Continental, a hotel with an elaborate rule system to keep its clients safe and private. All transactions are paid for with gold coins, the only currency apparently accepted among the criminals in this world. The world that John Wick inhabits is a fun one to spend time in, but the film never gets overly bogged down with these details, as the filmmakers realize it works best as a backdrop for bone crunching fistfights and hails of gunfire.

Those fistfights and gunfights carry a very satisfying weight to them, as they are delivered by a crew who knows intimately how to photograph bodies in motion, and who understands the importance of utilizing the space within a frame. The action in John Wick features a lot of long takes, and some unobtrusive editing, that gives everything a believable physicality even when the action reaches ridiculous proportions. Chad Stahelski tends to roam around the scene with his camera, defining the contours of a room or hallway so that when the fighting starts he can cut within that area and the audience will be able to quickly follow along and orient themselves.

A sequel is currently in the works for John Wick, which is a no brainer considering how well the film performed both critically and commercially, but I have my doubts. John Wick is so blissfully self contained, a true standout when most films these days seem to come preplanned as trilogies (with the final film split in two, of course), that the prospect of another journey of revenge for this character seems like a dubious proposition. Of course there's that fun and detailed world to explore, but I worry that exploring it too deeply will lead to a more complicated mythology than this story needed (a la the Matrix sequels). Still, everyone involved in making this films seems to have learned the right lessons from the action films they cut their teeth on, so at the very least it should be great to look at, and exciting to watch.

Final Rating; 4(out of 5)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

I'll be upfront about this: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl features a lot of things that should make me hate it. It's a movie about a broken white male who learns how to fix himself with the help of a magical black man and an equally magical dying girl, two tropes that really irk me. It's also set in high school, and features another trope that bothers me, maybe more than the others; preternaturally witty teenagers. The problems with teenagers and children in pop culture is that the people writing these characters base them on idealized versions of themselves, or people they knew. No actual teenager is as well spoken or assured as most teens we see in movies, because we tend to remember our younger selves as simply smaller versions of our adult selves, and we forget how awkward, emotionally, physically, and verbally, we were at the time. So, this film is made up of a collection of tropes I hate, and yet I somehow came to love the film.

Greg (Thomas Mann, the titular Me) is a closed off teenager entering his senior year of high school. He's survived by working hard to be accepted by every imaginable clique in his school, carefully tuning his personality to be as invisible as possible and making sure he never forms any real attachments or enemies. He even refers to his oldest childhood friend, Earl (RJ Cyler) as simply his coworker, referencing the dozens of handmade film parodies they've made since elementary school. When one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cooke, typecast these days as the Dying Girl), a near stranger, is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg's mother forces him to spend time with her to cheer her up. Which sets our story in motion, as we follow Greg through his senior year, tracking the growing, rocky friendship he develops with Rachel and the possible dissolution of his friendship with Earl.

All of this is filtered through the ironically detached eye of a geeky film nerd, with references to Werner Herzog (a lot of references, actually), Stan Brakhage, The Archers, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, and advertisements for the Criterion Collection hanging in bedrooms and bookstores and teacher's studies. The soundtrack often echoes the musical scores to Hitchcock films and spaghetti westerns, and Greg and Earl's film parodies, as silly as they might be, have their roots in a very refined cinematic palette (example parody titles include 'My Dinner With Andre The Giant,' 'The Turd Man,' and 'Don't Look Now, Because a Creepy-ass Dwarf is About to Kill You!!! Damn.'). This veers dangerously close to being too cutesy for it's own good, and yet I found it charming. Perhaps it's because these two seem to be living the dream life version of my own senior year, if only I'd found anyone else quite so into oddball arthouse films and lowbrow humor. The direction, from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who also helmed the better-than-it-needed-to-be Town That Dreaded Sundown remake), gives this film a more idiosyncratic, accomplished look and feel than most other teen-oriented dramas even attempt these days.

I said earlier the film follows Greg, and I say that pointedly, because we never see anything that is outside of his perspective. This fact seemed to anger most critics, who judged the film primarily as the collection of tropes I listed above. Certainly the film leans heavily into stereotype, particularly with Earl, who lives in a bad neighborhood and is overly stoic. The closest he has to a catchphrase, "dem titties," seems just a step above having him eat fried chicken and watermelon in every scene. Rachel, also, is sometimes reduced to a series of reactions to Greg, as we see her cheered up by his antics or too sick to put up with them at various times. That reduction to caricature extends to the rest of the cast too, with Greg's parents (Nick Offerman & Connie Britton) portrayed as slightly loopy, hippyish academics. Earl's family fares much worse, with only his brother (Bobb'e J. Thompson) appearing on screen, and he's the basic stereotype of a young African American hoodlum, with tank top, do-rag, tattoos, and an always aggressive dog at his side. It continues on to Rachel's mom (Molly Shannon), who is always filmed holding a glass of wine, Greg's history teacher (Jon Bernthal) is a heavily tattooed variation of the tough but inspiring high school teacher, and all of the other teen characters seem to be central casting's idea of 'goth' 'cheerleader' or 'jock.' Everyone in this film is a caricature.

Clearly this sort of one dimensional character work is intentional; it's a result of the film occupying so completely Greg's point of view. It does not, however, necessarily agree with that viewpoint, and I tend to think it's just the opposite. It's true that these characters exist primarily as backdrop to Greg's emotional growth, but it's telling that none of them actually help him in his maturation. In fact, most of his growth occurs because the characters get sick of his self-absorbed bullshit and shut him out of their lives. Even though the film is seen through Greg's eyes, the audience still gets clues as to how his actions are really impacting people, through subtle gestures or looks we can see what Greg ignores, we can see when he's saying the wrong thing or ignoring someone else's feelings. This is a bit of form and a bit of function, as Greg's emotional arc requires him to become less self-involved and more open to forming attachments to those around him, so the film is required to open up at times as well. This is most poignantly driven home late in the film when Greg visit's Rachel's room. He's spent countless hours within that room, but is just now noticing the tiny details; the small drawings Rachel sketched into the pattern of her wallpaper, the intricately carved out books on her shelves, the photos of her friends and family. The accumulation of a life lived that he was unaware of.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may populate it's runtime with stock stereotypes, but it also takes the effort to suggest that these stereotypes have an existence beyond what we see. It would be easy enough to imagine this story being told from the point of view of any of the primary characters. Which is part of why I fell in love with this movie; teenagers are self-involved assholes. This is just fine, it's not a judgment call, we all were at that age. But a lot of teen-oriented movies seem to forget that fact, and they idealize the period of our lives when we're at our worst and most awkward. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl also idealizes this period, but it has the honesty to acknowledge that a lot of our actions at this age are regrettable, to say the least.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Monday, February 01, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Documentary Roundup

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom (2015): This is nowhere near being an objective account of the Euromaidan protests that swept Ukraine beginning in late 2013, and anyone looking for a detailed account of the socio-political issues that inspired them would be well advised to look elsewhere. What Winter on Fire is, however, is a blow by blow, street level account of what was going on with the protesters themselves. Initially angered by the pro-Russian president's backing out of talks to join the European Union, Ukrainian citizens of all ages convened in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to peacefully protest this move and call for a continuation of talks. Netflix commissioned cameras to be filming 24/7 at the very beginning of the protests, which means the entire event was captured on film, either through a documentarian's lens or through a protester's smartphone. What this also means is that you can pinpoint the exact moment things fall apart, as police storm the square and begin beating unarmed and nonviolent protesters.

I already said that this film makes no effort to be objective; the filmmaker's sympathy lies only with the protesters, who the film posits as brave freedom fighters putting their lives on the line for what everyone in Ukraine wants. There's not really any mention of an opposing viewpoint, although there were plenty of Pro-Russian protests as well. As with all things, you should try to remember that every stance has an opposing view that may be just as valid. It's best not to view this film as an idealogical statement, but to see it as a you-are-there document of the horrible mistreatment these protesters had to suffer through. Fair warning; the violence is brutal, and you will watch a few people die. Roger Ebert once said that what made him cry in movies was kindness, was seeing someone in the film do something selfless for someone else. I thought of that as I cried during this film, watching people race out into gunfire with nothing but a wooden shield to protect them in order to try and help the wounded to safety, no matter which side of the fight they happened to be on.

Final Rating: 4.5(out of 5)

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015): I did not know much about Nina Simone before going into this, although I've owned a compilation of her music that I love quite a bit. I knew of her personal life mostly through her civil rights era activities, and to be honest I wasn't really that interested to know more. Nothing against Miss Simone, but I'm past the age where I would read articles and interviews and histories about my favorite artists, and nowadays that stuff just doesn't interest me as much. I worried a little about my lack of Nina Simone knowledge going into this documentary, because often biopics, particularly those about celebrities, tend to assume a little bit of familiarity with their subject. they expect you to know a bit about their career already, and sometimes rely on that information to fill in some gaps they might not have the time to completely get into.

What Happened, Miss Simone? started out a little worryingly, beginning with a concert late into her career that would be infamous to Simone devotees, but didn't quite land with the same impact for me. She is an electric performer, but seems to be bristling during the performance, viewing the audience as adversaries and stopping mid-song to call them out for presumed slights. The film then jumps back to Simone's early childhood and follows a more standard musical-biopic mold, checking off all of the boxes these things require. I'll admit I wasn't really enjoying the first half of this documentary, which I felt was a bit too standard, and gave no indication of Nina Simone the person. We here the pertinent details, but there isn't much more than a glimpse of what the human being behind the public persona is. About halfway through, however, things cohere a bit more, and it's clear that the film's lack of defining Nina Simone isn't a weakness, but perhaps a strength. Nina Simone was someone who always felt uncomfortable with fame, who felt regret at a career that it seems she felt was a bit beneath her (her original goal was to be a classical pianist, not a, as she puts it, pop singer). Her involvement in the civil rights movement brought some of that angst to the forefront, and she began to wear her bitterness and sadness more openly. What Happened, Miss Simone? is an exploration of the question asked in the title, and it never quite answers it. The film reveals Nina Simone to be a complex, possibly unknowable human being, as much a mystery to the people who knew and loved her as to her fans.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Paris is Burning (1990): This is the type of documentary I really gravitate towards; the type that has no real agenda beyond introducing you to a small, unseen lifestyle or community. Paris is Burning is a snapshot of a certain subculture of gay life in late 1980s New York. Following a handful of colorful individuals as they prepare for and compete in drag shows in and around Harlem. Drag in this context doesn't imply any sort of gender mixing, but instead a costume in general, with the winner of the competition being the one who best embodies the 'realness' of their role. The film has no villains, no heroes, not greater message it's trying to make. Although the spectre of AIDS hangs over the proceedings, this has more to do with our current perspective on that period of time. Instead Paris is Burning's goal appears to be simply to provide a showcase for the various flamboyant individuals who make up the drag circuit. Dividing themselves into Houses, their lives revolve around strutting and performing, and everything else they do is simply to help them get ready for the next show. Their costumes are pieced together from whatever they can hustle for, or whatever they're quick enough to steal.

Late in the film, one of the participants, Venus Xtravaganza, is found strangled to death in a seedy motel room. That is an undeniably tragic loss, as Venus' Pollyannaish dreams and unflagging energy provided one of the brightest spots in the film. Her death is the closest this film comes to making a statement, as it explicitly acknowledges the danger inherent in this lifestyle, particularly in this time and this place. But then the film moves on, life moves on. Some people succeed (Willi Ninja in particularly is shown making a name for himself as a choreographer), others continue competing, hustling and surviving.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Friday, January 29, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Kung Fu Killer

Quick editorial note; the onscreen title for this film is Kung Fu Killer, and can be found on netflix as such. However, some sites and guides list this movie under an earlier English title; Kung Fu Jungle.

In 1997 the British returned soveriegnty of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China. In anticipation of this handover, many Hong Kong filmmakers, fearing censorship under the new regime, emigrated to American shores. John Woo, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li were just a few of the more high profile names to make the jump to American films, with varying degrees of success. Donnie Yen wasn't part of that initial wave, but he eventually made it stateside in the early 2000s, though he was exclusively relegated to mostly-mute henchman roles, someone who appeared ready to kick major ass, but would be disposed of quickly by being shot, or, worse yet, dying offscreen. This was hardly the best showcase for his skills as a martial artist, and he quickly went back to Hong Kong. Most of these filmmakers did; the feared censorship never really manifested in any serious capacity, and Americans could never figure out what to do with their talents.

It may have taken awhile, but it looks like the western world is finally catching on to just how great Donnie Yen is, thanks to the highly successful Ip Man movies, which have inspired a small boom in films about that man's life. Those who ventured beyond the Jackie Chan movies that filled American theatres in the late 90s, or at least those who paid attention to the names below the top line of the credits, have been well aware of Mr. Yen's talents for at least two decades now. I first noticed him in a pair of wuxia films, Wing Chun and Iron Monkey, where his cheerful, boyish demeanor belied an assured and elegant fighting style. As the years have gone on, and Yen's features have become more lined with age, that fighting style has evolved to become more brutal, less balletic, but still incredibly visually engaging.

Which brings us to Kung Fu Killer, a high octane genre mashup that plays everything completely straight, while also expecting that the audience will recognize and accept the silliness running underneath. The film is pretty much a mix between a slick, stylish serial killer movie and an old school martial arts tournament film. Think David Fincher's Seven mixed with Master of the Flying Guillotine, or any other martial arts film where the hero has to fight a series of masters with their own distinct fighting styles. In this film, the serial killer is targeting Kung Fu masters, each one representing a different discipline or style. One is a master of grappling, another known for his kicks, another known for his use of weapons, and so on. Donnie Yen plays the only person who can stop him; a martial arts master who is serving time in prison for accidentally killing a man during a duel. The killer has fixated on Yen as the pinnacle of Kung Fu perfection, and desires only to fight him to the death.

As I said, you have to brace yourself for some straight-faced silliness in this film, which is never presented as jokey and is therefore too easy to take seriously. Some of this, like the recurring scenes of policemen and forensics units investigating the aftermath of epic Kung Fu battles like normal crime scenes, is pure hilarious brilliance. Some of it, in particular the placeholder backstory for the killer, can be incredibly earnest and schmaltzy. But really, the plot is just a skeleton on which to hang a bunch of cool fights and setpieces. And the fights in this film are truly great, as each one features a new style of fighting and a new unique backdrop. One fight in a giant warehouse takes place on and around a giant skeleton statue for an upcoming art exhibit, another takes place on a busy highway and becomes a fistfight variation of Frogger (it should be said that the green screen effects for some of this, particularly when the fight moves underneath the passing semi-trucks, is laughably unconvincing).

One thing that's great about Hong Kong cinema is its use of space and camera movement. In America our action films evolved around cars and guns, and guns in particularly do not make for interesting cinema. The act of firing a gun leaves an invisible area between action and reaction, and a lot of action films can devolve into someone in one shot firing a weapon and people in another shot trying to avoid squibs. In Hong Kong action films evolved around martial arts, which is more like dancing than the fighting in American films. In a martial arts film, action and reaction are incontovertibly connected, which immediately seems more dynamic. This lead to a natural inclusion of the space in which the scene takes place, and a tendency towards longer shots where the characters are framed full body. What good is putting dancing on screen if you can't see anyone's feet? I'm not saying either style is better overall, but I do wish more western filmmakers took that lesson of space usage.

My Alternate Title: Kung Fu UPS-Guy Prison
For those not already attuned to what is going on, the end credits are preceded by a 'thank you' from the filmmakers to all the people who have inspired them, and it reveals that almost every onscreen part in the film was filled with a luminary from Hong Kong martial arts cinema. It's a fun, touching moment, and shows where this film's true ambition lies. Not to outdo the classics of the genre, but to just throw as much cool shit at the audience as possible. On that front, it succeeds.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Catching Up On 2016 Movie a Day Pt. 1

So far this year I've been trying to watch a movie a day, or at least keep the number of watched movies somewhat even with the progressing calendar. Basically, I may have to skip a day or two, but I'll make up for it by watching multiple movies on days off. So far I'm keeping good on my goal; it is currently the 28th and I've seen 29 feature films. And yet I've been writing these Movie a Day posts for just over a week, meaning that there are several films that I haven't written about yet. Here is the first in a series of posts in which I'll clear out that backlog with some briefer than usual posts. Maybe just a paragraph. I'll be peppering these in every now and then until I'm completely caught up. See if you can spot today's theme.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015): The latest film based on a Mark Millar comic book, and the second one to be directed by Matthew Vaughn (the other was Kick-Ass). The potential for this movie was through the roof, with relative newcomer Taron Egerton surrounded by an impressive cast of old pros; Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, and Samuel L. Jackson. Matthew Vaughn certainly knows his way around this type of boy's adventure story, having worked with Guy Ritchie in the early days of both of their careers. Matthew Vaughn and Guy Ritchie may not have started off together, but they found each other early on, and will probably always be linking in the minds of some fans due to their early work together. In the early 2000s Matthew Vaughn began to step out of Guy Ritchie's shadow by directing his own films, although his first film, Layer Cake, did feel a bit suspiciously familiar to anyone who had seen Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Since then he's proved a little bit more eclectic, though he is drawn to comic books, and he's certainly in step with Millar's mix of gleefully crass humor and stylish violence. The problem, though, is that the trick is getting old. Perhaps it's just me, having now seen  four Mark Millar films and read several of his comic series, but I'm getting tired of his brand of Boy's Adventures wish-fulfillment. Most of his stories, particularly his original creations, follow a lone outcast who gives square society the finger and violently, brutally forges his own path. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to just turn my brain off and enjoy his questionable politics and incomparable bad taste.

Kingsman seems at first blush to represent a slobs against snobs sort of take on international espionage, and seems to argue for a less class oriented view of life. But in the end the film is actually making a case for the sort of outmoded, classist attitudes the earlier passages seem to refute. The film, for the most part, is a gory James Bond riff with an uncultured young punk proving that he's just as good, or better, than his more posh counterparts. By the end of the film, however, he's joined the ranks of those posh individuals as he becomes just another lone white guy with a gun who is the only one capable of saving the world. That's my problem with Millar in a nutshell; he seems anarchic and punkish, but he's actually fairly rightwing and reactionary. It's a glaring detail that the only real world leader referenced in the film, shown in league with the villain, is Barack Obama, while the villain is defeated by a piece of Reagan-era weaponry. It might also be an important detail that the villain is a black man who dresses in what would be considered an urban style who is defeated by a group of wealthy white men in impeccably tailored suits. Perhaps I'm reading way too much into that, but I foresee Mark Millar having the same problem as Frank Miller, where eventually his anarchic bent is overshadowed by his latent fascism.

Those arguments aside, Kingsman can be a lot of fun. I enjoyed most of it, and realized that my problems with the film were probably overthinking things a bit. A few scenes hit a sort of psycho-freakout intensity that marks the film firing on all cylinders, and there's a montage of exploding heads that is brilliantly off kilter. But then the film ends with a princess offering our hero anal sex in exchange for saving the world, and that deflates things a little bit.

Final Rating: 3(out of 5)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015): Guy Ritchie got his start with gritty, shaggy, slightly comedic tales of low level criminals in London, but seemed to get sidetracked by Hollywood success and has spent much of the last decade working on the Sherlock Holmes films. I'll admit that I found his first Sherlock Holmes film fun but somewhat soulless, and the less said about the sequel the better. But with Man From U.N.C.L.E., he seems to have finally figured out how to meld his particular talents with the demands of big budget blockbuster filmmaking. This is not a return to form in the slightest, but neither is it a drastic step forward in his artistic evolution. If anything, this is just Guy Ritchie finding a way to make an action film that is suited to his style: stylish, funny, and fleet-footed. It's not perfect, far from it, but it's probably the most satisfying film he's made in years. Both this film and Kingsman feature a similar dependence on style over substance, but I found it worked much more successfully in this picture.

Casting seems to play a large part in this fun, although it's amusing to me that all of the major parts are filled by actors playing against their own nationalities. Brit's Henry Cavill plays a straight laced Americans, American Armie Hammer plays Russian, and Swedish actress Alicia Vikander plays German. Possibly only Hugh Grant, in a late-in-the-film appearance, gets to act with his own accent. And of course they all look great in period-appropriate tailored suits. If I may for a moment: Armie Hammer seems to have trouble catching a break. He's a fun presence with a fun name, but every film that seems like it might be a succesful starring vehicle for him becomes a nonstarter at the box office. The Lone Ranger may have had its problems, but none of them could be attributed to Hammer, who gave a brilliant straight man performance. In this he plays a menacing Russian hulk much better than his all American demeanor in previous films would suggest, while Cavill plays American much more snappily than in Man Of Steel.

Guy Ritchie doesn't seem to have much ability when it comes to staging large action setpieces, but he finds some nice workarounds for the most part. The latter half of one white knuckle escape is seen mostly in reflection as one character sits and watches through a truck's windshield, while sometimes he simply cuts away from the action and gets straight to the aftermath. One stylistic trick he pulls, at least two or three times in this film, is somewhat less charming. At key moments of dialogue the audio will drop out of the movie so that the audience can't hear what's being said, all so that Ritchie can surprise us a few minutes later. Then he'll simply replay the earlier scene but with the dialogue included so we can be impressed by the film's cleverness. It was absolutely bizarre, and has to be one of the cheapest gimmicks I've ever seen. That said, the film is fun and cool, and a breeze to get through. That may not sound like the most glowing review, but it makes the perfect antidote to the increasing grim and gritty blockbuster seasons we've been getting lately.

Final Rating: 3.5(out of 5)

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015): Alternate subtitle; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tom Cruise. Because I'll admit it; I love Tom Cruise as a movie star. I think he's incredibly charming and charismatic on screen, and I'm always happy to see him in an action film. Personally, I have no doubt that he's the biggest creep in the world, but I just ignore that while watching a movie. Exhibit A in the case for Cruise as a great movie star; he always chooses interesting people to work with. It's hard to think of a franchise that's had as much of a diverse collection of directors as the Mission: Impossible series. It's hard to think of a star with the clout to choose those collaborators. Certainly John Woo was still a hot property when he helmed the sequel, but who would have picked Brian De Palma to helm the first film at that point in his career? He also gave J.J. Abrams his first feature film after only a handful of television credits, and picked animation iconoclast Brad Bird to make his live action debut. Cruise had worked with Christopher McQuarrie (director of this film) before on Jack Reacher, but he was still a relatively unknown name to be handing such a large franchise to, having made his career primarily as a screenwriter. Through the last couple of decades Tom Cruise has proved incredibly discerning and canny in who he chooses to work with.

This, the fifth film in the M:I series, doesn't quite reach the level of action movie nirvana that the previous film did, but it's still an object lesson in how to craft an old school action flick. McQuarrie proved on Jack Reacher what a great action director he could be. That film had serious plot and script problems, and yet the direction was always clean and impressive, rendering the film compulsively rewatchable. He brings that same strength to Rogue Nation as well, showing how great action can be when it's more than just rapid-fire editing and explosions. McQuarrie favors longer takes than most contemporary action directors use, and is judicious in his use of bombastic noise. Several large setpieces in Rogue Nation are almost entirely silent, with no dialogue and only the sound of movement. He's also good at giving a sense of the physical space a scene is taking place in. His camera movements and editing make it easy to follow the flow of the action, which keeps things from becoming a confused mess like your average Michael Bay film.

Even with that much-publicized plane stunt, with Cruise hanging outside a plane as it's taking off, there's nothing in this film that reaches the delirious action heights of Ghost Protocol, but it's presented in a clear, competent manner. It's solid, and is actually satisfying in a way that many other 'cooler' films just don't match. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation feels like the best parts of Roger Moore era James Bond, with the globehopping, femme fatales, gadgets, and intrigue.

Final Rating; 4(out of 5)