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)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Seventh Son

I have to get this down quickly, before I forget it.

Seventh Son makes a good comparison piece with the one I wrote for Jupiter Ascending. In that review I wrote about how a flash of personality can make all the difference between goofily enjoyable and blandly forgettable, and I made the case that Jupiter Ascending's quirks and silliness raised it higher than other, similar high octane sci-fi/fantasy/action flicks, and here I have a film proving my point. Seventh Son was dumped into the no-mans-land of February, between the prestige films most companies release during the holiday season and the upcoming summer months full of their high profile blockbusters. January to March is typically when studios release the films they don't have much confidence in, knowing they'll likely be forgotten by year's end. That's not to say that everything released in those months is horrible, but it's not a sign of confidence. More often the theatres will be full of films like I, Frankenstein, The Nut Job, the aforementioned Jupiter Ascending, and that other Hercules movie. The one without The Rock.

Seventh Son is so blandly forgettable and personality-free (at least in the scenes without Jeff Bridges, but more on that in a moment) that the best things that can be said about it are still faults. The movie is briskly paced and full of enough incident to fill a trilogy, which means the experience goes by with enough energy to make things painless. You'll be entertained, sure, but the experience isn't going to leave a lasting impression. On the other hand, that same speed means that nothing has any dramatic weight, and it never feels like the film has any real stakes.

First we hear the the score for the film, which is so blatantly a ripoff of Howard Shore's music for Lord of the Rings that I'm surprised Marco Beltrami was never sued. And then the film begins with a cold open where a man is sealing a large iron cover on a hole in a lonely mountain while a woman's voice begs him to have mercy. The man rides off, and time passes. A lot of time. Long enough for the iron to rust and the entity trapped in the hole to escape. The title comes up, and then suddenly the film is in motion, having jumped at least 50 years forward in time. We meet Gregory (Jeff Bridges), the older version of the man in the beginning, and his apprentice William (Kit Harrington) as they are summoned to exorcise a demon from a small girl. Before they can celebrate their success at this task, it's revealed that the demon they exorcised was actually Mother Malkin, the witch Gregory trapped in the beginning of the film. She kills Gregory's apprentice (so long, Kit Harrington, we hardly knew ye), then flies off to her mountain fortress where she gathers her witch allies in order to... do something. Something involving the blood moon, which will give them power to, I dunno, probably take over the world or something. Gregory immediately shows up at the home of Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), who is as bland as those names suggest, although his mother is Olivia Williams which seems to have not rubbed off on him. He basically buys Tom, the seventh son of a seventh son, and they go off to find Malkin and stop the apocalypse. It may seem like I'm condensing a lot of events into a more streamlined chain of events, but this segment lasts maybe 10 minutes, and the film continues this pace throughout.

The intense speed at which this film moves mean that the characters become little more than exposition machines. With so much story to cover in so little time (the movie comes in at an hour and 42 minutes, which is brief for this type of convoluted fantasy epic) nobody has any time for an actual conversation that doesn't directly explain the rules of this world, or the machinations of the plot. This is the type of movie where we know that Tom and a half-witch named Alice (Alicia Vikander) are falling in love because they talk a lot about how they're falling in love.This film doesn't have time to show us, it needs to tell us so that it can just move on to the next scene. The downside to this is that none of it seems to matter. Tom's mother (a witch herself, who had helped defeat Malkin the first time around) dies heroically, and it's glossed over so quickly that it appears no one even notices. A late in the game confirmation that Malkin and Gregory had once been in love is supposed to be read as tragic, but instead barely registers.

Seventh Son was based on a series of Young Adult novels, and while the film was clearly intended to be a franchise starter, it seems like at least three books of plot have been condensed into one movie. If the material had been allowed to breath a little bit it could have improved greatly. If, for instance, we spent a bit of time with Gregory and his first apprentice before his untimely death, we could have had a sense of how this affected Gregory. To have spent ten years training this boy, living with him, fighting the forces of evil, we should have some sense of what that means. But then, possibly, stretching the story out a bit might just draw attention to how generic it really is.

The only consistently good part about this film is Jeff Bridges. The entire cast is qualified (or overqualified in some cases), and yet none of them are able to endow their lines with any sort of drama. Julianne Moore seems a bit lost in the film, unwilling or unable to truly camp up her role, but also not wholly convinced of her character's dramatic presence. Alicia Vikander isn't able to let any personality peek out from behind the mountains of exposition and flowery falling-in-love moments she's forced to deliver, and comes across as more affectless than when she played an actual robot in Ex Machina. Ben Barnes seems camera ready for this type of YA fare, and should have the requisite experience from previously appearing in two of the Narnia films and a tiny role in Stardust, but he's just not good enough to bring any spark to this cipher of a character. Heroes in fantasy stories, particularly in YA books, tend to be bland audience-surrogates, someone who is as broadly sketched as possible so that the readers can place themselves in that role in their imaginations. Unfortunately that aspect transferred to the screen as well.

Which leaves, of course, Jeff Bridges, who seems to be having an utter blast every time he's on screen. It's debatable how seriously he took all of this stuff, whether he thought the movie might actually be good, or whether he was just enjoying the chance to slay dragons and indulge his inner Gandalf, but he commits wholly to his oddball performance. With a jutted lower jaw and the mushy line delivery of a perpetual drunk, he's both off-putting a joy to spend time with. There are two things I will remember about this movie. One is a pretty awesome looking fight between two dragons near the end of the film. The other is Jeff Bridges, finishing a bombastic speech directed towards his new apprentice by turning around, stalking away, and muttering under his breath 'fucking witches.' Everything else is already fading from memory, less than a day later.

Final Rating: 2(out of 5)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac is trapped in a cycle. He's trapped professionally, struggling as a folk singer-songwriter in 1960s Greenwich Village. When we see him perform, he is clearly talented and respected by the audience, but he's unable to make that next crucial step that would see him break out of the coffee shops he cycles through. He's trapped artistically, playing the same old songs while nursing the pain he feels after the dissolution of a musical partnership that we get the sense was much more successful. He's trapped personally, with a small group of friends he mooches off of, cycling through them as he couch surfs through New York. He'll stay with one group until they start to get sick of him, then call up the next name in his address book. The film he's stuck in, as well, seems to cycle through the same few settings and backdrops, repeatedly circling back to previous locations after roaming around for awhile.

Inside Llewyn Davis, the 16th film from Joel & Ethan Coen, is a film that probably improves the more familiar you are with their work. The Coen Brothers have crafted a very distinct style of storytelling that took me awhile to pin down. In every movie you can consider the writers (and sometimes directors) the gods of that universe, and it goes without saying that everything within that world is predetermined by them, and the characters are merely following the path of predestination. The subtle difference with the Coen brothers is that they create meticulously planned out clockwork worlds, where everything is moving and interlocking at various times during the movie, and then they populate this world with characters who not only don't realize their story is predetermined, but also seem like they might at any minute be able to break out of the path their gods (the Coens) have set for them. It's as if they've figured out the world, but allowed their characters to explore at their own pace. With this concept in mind, Inside Llewyn Davis can be read as the Coens both acknowledging that idea, and possibly affirming that there is no escape. Their characters are stuck wherever they decide to place them.

As I said, Llewyn Davis is stuck in a cycle, or possibly a series of them. The film eventually reveals a metaphysical aspect that might suggest Llewyn is stuck in a cycle more cosmic than just that of your standard struggling musician. At every turn, no matter what he tries, he has no hope of escaping. Llewyn treks across New York trying to earn enough money to pay for an abortion for a girl he may or may not have knocked up, but he's also trying to prove that his artistic talents aren't being wasted. He visits his agent looking for royalties, which doesn't pan out. He joins in on a recording session for a deeply silly novelty song that he feels is beneath him, but he needs the money. He pointedly opts for instant cash rather than performing credit and royalties, which the film doesn't need to tell us is a bad idea. With everything falling apart in New York, he leaves for Chicago to meet with a mythical promoter who can make or break careers, only to hear the crushing answer that he just doesn't have what it takes. Maybe if he was in a group, the promoter advises, but of course that ended badly for Llewyn the last time, so he's not about to try it again.

Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren, and Justin Timberlake

That final blow seems to be the actual final blow, and Llewyn attempts to just quit music and go back to having a normal paying job, but through a series of deeply ironic mixups he finds his efforts stymied at every turn, and almost sheepishly heads back to performing at the same old coffee shops. Something in him has changed, though, and Llewyn performs a song he used to do with his old partner, and he performs it with more strength and emotion than we've seen in him so far, and the crowd seems to respond to this. It seems like this might be the start of a slow uphill climb for our hero, until, wait, it turns out he's back exactly where he was at the start of the film. Both in an emotional sense, but in a very real-world sense as well, where the dialogue and actions are exact duplicates of the dialogue and actions in the opening scene, right down to the beating he gets in an alley behind the coffeeshop. Llewyn is trapped in another cycle, in himself, in this one moment in his career and life.

What I've said so far might make Inside Llewyn Davis seem like a dry, possibly even difficult movie but Inside Llewyn Davis is also funny, though maybe not as funny as their comedies. Even before John Goodman shows up as a drugged out, bitchy old jazz musician that threatens to derail the entire movie and pull it into his orbit, the film has some great wry humor. I should also add that I've never been as emotionally moved by a Coen brothers film as I was during this one. In fact, I'm trying to think about a time when any Coen brothers film moved me, and I'm drawing a blank. The brothers don't really deal in emotion, they deal in archness and irony, with everything viewed from a slight remove. But Inside Llewyn Davis has a real heart beneath its surface, and emotional currents in the film unlike anything else I can think of in their filmography. Partly that may be the music, and the performances, which always come weighted with emotions when deployed in film. But also it's the character of Llewyn, who Oscar Isaac plays as bitter and prickly, but with a clear pain motivating him. The mystery of the dissolution of his musical partnership is pieced together slowly, but once it falls into place it explains the motivations and relationships between almost every character in the film.

It's all the cat's fault

Towards the end of the film, after the failed meeting with the music promoter, Llewyn is driving back to Chicago while the car's owner (a man who picked him up hitchhiking) sleeps in the passenger seat. As the snow falls lightly, Llewyn notices the turnoff for Akron, a town his ex-girlfriend moved to, and where he just learned he has a 2 year old child. He thinks briefly about turning off, he sees the city shining in the darkness down below in the distance. This moment feels like the Coens throwing a rope to their poor, suffering character. Here is a clear way out, an exit both literal and metaphorical from the road he's on. At that moment it seems like his one out, like his life could continue happy and contented in that picturesque image. Maybe not a famous musician, but a happy person. But Llewyn lets the moment pass, he doesn't turn fast enough, and instead the car speeds back to New York, where the entire thing is doomed to repeat again.

Final Rating: 4.5(out of 5)

Monday, January 25, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Tangerine

Due to my status as an employed man with a pregnant wife, a 12 year old daughter, and no car, I am fairly limited in all three things I would need in order to keep up to date on all of the newest films; money, time, and steady transportation. This means that, although I love watching the Oscars every year (enough to have recently written a piece about this year's ceremony with my friend Rik), I haven't actually seen most of the nominated films before the awards air in quite a few years. I am endlessly omnivorous in my viewing habits, and yet my activity is largely dictated by easy availability. If it isn't on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, I pretty much don't get around to it. One thing I'm hoping to achieve with this movie-a-day project is to make more of an effort to see films that I might pass by in favor of some slick, forgettable action/horror/sci-fi flick, and also to watch more recent movies in an effort to keep abreast of current trends. Today's film, Tangerine, luckily fulfills both goals.

I went into the film pretty much blind; I read the netflix description, and I recalled seeing the name of the film mentioned on various film websites I frequent during festival season, but I had pretty much remained ignorant as to the film's plot and style. Tangerine follows a pair of transgendered women, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh out in the real world after a month in jail, and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), her friend who accidentally breaks the news to Sin-Dee that her pimp boyfriend has been cheating on her with a cisgender woman. I suppose technically both women could be referred to as prostitutes- Sin-Dee was in jail for prostitution, and Alexandra is seen in the film with two clients- and yet it also seems a bit reductive to describe them that way. Sex work seems like such a minor part of their lives, simply something they do from time to time to get by, that describing them by that act doesn't do justice to the characters we meet. Alexandra, the more level-headed of the two, harbors dreams of being a lounge singer, and Sin-Dee deeply, naively wants nothing more than to get married to her pimp boyfriend and live happily ever after. But, after hearing about his indiscretions, Sin-Dee is looking for revenge, and the film follows her as she scours West Hollywood looking for the mysterious woman her boyfriend has been shacking up with. The film follows Sin-Dee on her quest for revenge, Alexandra on her quest for fame, or at least some form of expression, and an Armenian cab driver with a penchant for transgendered prostitutes (Karren Karagulian) as he searches for Sin-Dee. Along the way we're treated to a tour of the seedier side of an already seedy district, as crack is smoked in bathrooms, motel rooms are set up for meth-addled prostitutes to entertain large groups of transient men, and at least one family unit is dissolved in front of our eyes. Oh, and Tangerine is a comedy.

It might help to know that last part, about the comedy, before you actually watch Tangerine, because it would otherwise be easy to miss it. It's as if Edgar Wright had directed Requiem For A Dream; the subject matter is harrowing and often depressing, but it's pitched at such an energetic tone that it never completely devolves into outright miserablism. Tangerine was filmed for a reported $100,000, using only an iPhone with an anamorphic lense snapped onto it, and looks far better than any rational person would expect. Director Sean Baker has admitted to playing around with the film on his computer, correcting the color and giving everything a more cinematic look, but even knowing that Tangerine looks impressively professional for such a cheap consumer-ready origin. This cheapness, and the convenience of the iPhone, means that his camera can instantly and unobtrusively change to any desired angle and get into any cramped space. It's this energy he brings to the film that makes Tangerine one of the most vibrant films I've seen from last year.

Sean Baker, filming an honest-to-goodness movie on an iphone!

I'll be honest, when I first finished watching the film, I had to gather my thoughts. The film betrays it's comedic intent in a finale worthy of a classic farce, with characters bursting into rooms at just the wrong time and a half dozen people with their own intersecting plotlines all crashing into each other, and yet I wasn't sure how I felt about all of this. The characters can be so unlikable, and Sin-Dee in particular can be so shrill and obnoxious that I had trouble investing any emotion in her story. Alexandra, as I said, seems more levelheaded and her dreams of fame make her more immediately sympathetic, but she is revealed to be just as horrible a person as anyone else, and her constant refrain of 'I don't want to be involved in any drama' is laid bare for the lie that it is. James Ransone (an interesting character actor who seems to be popping up with an increasing, and welcome, frequency) shows up for the finale as Sin-Dee's cheating pimp, and he seems to get the tone just right, and allows the film's themes to gel around him. He plays a scumbag with an instant charisma and charm that lightens the mood considerably, even as events get worse for everyone involved. It takes awhile for some of the other characters, but eventually Sin-Dee's screeching naivete and self centered demeanor slips enough for her true vulnerability to show through, and it's clear the film has nothing but empathy for every person on screen, no matter how horrible their actions or choices.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Creep (2014)

"$1,000 for the day. Filming service. Discretion is appreciated." How broke would you have to be in order to drive out to a secluded house in the woods in response to that ad alone, and no other information? Whatever that level of monetary desperation is, Aaron (director Patrick Brice) has reached it. Or, perhaps, he's simply a glorious combination of naive and utterly idiotic. The ad, it turns out, was placed by a man dying of an unspecified illness who would like Aaron to film him wandering around and talking about himself to his unborn son whom he will not live to see. This man, Josef, is played by Mark Duplass as genial, a bit of a doofus, and never anything but insidiously creepy. From the very beginning he's throwing up nothing but red flags; the first thing he wants filmed is "tubby time" with his child, where he immediately strips and jumps into a bathtub where he cleans an imaginary baby and pretends to kiss it on the forehead. Things get worse from there.

The film's concept, that Aaron has taken the wrong job with the wrong weirdo, is a pretty solid- if familiar- setup for a horror film, and it utilizes its found-footage format more effectively than a lot of its contemporaries. The interviewer/interviewee dynamic gives a convenient reason for the camera to be on at all times, and the film's focus on portraying a rambling weirdo keeps the proceedings from devolving into incomprehensible shaky-cam madness. Once or twice near the end, though, Creep still runs up against that ever-present problem; why does Aaron keep filming? More specifically, there are scenes in the latter half of the film where Aaron is filming himself checking the mail, or sleeping, apparently because he knew the footage would be necessary in order to bridge the gap from point A to point B in the audience's mind.

Creep is a two man show; no other characters appear on screen, although we do hear someone claiming to be Josef's sister. It would be best for a prospective audience to adjust their expectations accordingly; this isn't going to be a gory or exciting or even particularly shocking horror movie, this is more like a chamber piece where the depths of one character's madness is slowly explored. Josef, the titular Creep, is the true star of the show, as he keeps up a running monologue of escalating weirdness and has the perfect knack for knowing when to dial it back. He spins a number of stories, and each time he's caught in a lie he has the perfect excuse, retconning the story to fit Aaron's new awareness. It's a trick he pulls a few times, making him seem like matryoshka doll of deceit. 

The film's one true failing is that Aaron is never quite able to keep up with Josef. At just over the halfway point in the movie, Creep switches locations, and we follow Aaron back at home, away from Josef. This duality within the film leaves it feeling very unbalanced, as Aaron is neither as interesting nor as dynamic as Josef. Aaron too often responds with befuddled silence to Josef's madness, which is probably fairly realistic, but means we never get any sense of him as a character. Aaron is incredibly undeveloped, and there's no real sense of tension in seeing him at home receiving video messages and trinkets from Josef. If Aaron had been more developed, or if he had been more involved in the interview process with Josef (if, say, those monologues had been dialogues), the film's tension would have expanded accordingly. As it is, this asymmetry draws attention to just how gimmicky and manufactured the film is. This film was clearly designed as an experiment in how to make a minimalist film, and too much attention is drawn to the film's sense of cleverness.

Still, it was an enjoyable enough ride, and I found it all worthwhile for the final encounter between Josef and Aaron, which gave me a small chuckle at first, and then a larger guffaw as the scene kept going and I realized exactly what it had all been leading up to. It's not hard to imagine that the entire film was put together just for that one nearly-final image.

Final Rating: 3(out of 5)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Poltergeist (2015)

There's a certain film criticism that goes along the lines of 'there's no real reason for this to exist.' You see it a lot with remakes, where the person making the comment is announcing their displeasure at a beloved property being rehashed. It's an argument I've made a few times myself, but I've recently come to the conclusion that I should stop saying that. Art, even crassly commercial art, doesn't need a reason to exist beyond its own existence. Movies exist to, first and foremost, entertain. I think people forget that sometimes when they gravitate towards challenging arthouse fare, and they begin to look down on more blatantly commercial endeavors. But they forget that even the most glacially paced, abstractly plotted, cerebral thinkpiece is still meant, at least on some level, to entertain you. What people find entertaining is highly subjective, and there's no reason a superhero movie or a horror movie isn't as worthwhile a way to spend 2 hours as your average Fellini film. I've seen the 'why does this exist?' comment in almost every Poltergeist review I looked at, and yet the movie does exist, it's here, so might as well not bother complaining about that basic fact. And so I will talk a bit about the recent remake of Poltergeist, and I will be critical of it, but I will never question it's existence.

That being said, I have to admit that this film did mostly inspire fond recollections of the original film, and never quite improved on the original formula. In fact, as the film went along it seemed to become more and more slavish to the original material. I will say this much; I enjoyed Poltergeist for most of its running time, though I felt it all fell apart in the film's final minutes. A lot of that was the casting; Sam Rockwell is great as the unemployed father who has to downsize his family into a less desirable (though still enviable) neighborhood, but he's great in everything he does, and Jared Harris, in the Zelda Rubinstein roll, though this time he's the host of one of those cheesy cable ghost hunting shows, is always a treat, although most films tend to underuse him, as this one does. But a lot of it also comes down to the tone established by director Gil Kenan, who captures a lightness, and a sense of fun, that is sorely missing from a lot of horror films these days. On the other hand, he also foreshadows the horror elements way too much in the early stretches of the film, during which anxious middle child Kyle Catlett wanders around the family's new suburban home and stares forebodingly at objects and rooms that will become important later on.

As I said, Poltergeist becomes less original as it goes along, and by the middle stretch of the film is basically following the plot of the first film beat for beat, with only minor tweaks. Thought that clown doll in the original was scary? What if this time there were a dozen of them? This wasn't too horrible, actually, and actually had a few fun moments. The scene in which the ghosts finally make themselves known (to the audience if not the family) came with a neat visual, as lightbulbs would turn on and then flare out just as the next one in line started to flare up. Also some of the ghostly white orbs had a neat old school look to them, complete with Spielbergian lens flares. If the film had actually carried on in this manner, I may have enjoyed it more. However, about 15 minutes until the end of the film, everything falls apart.

Throughout the film the big problem with it is that the reasons behind the paranormal activity is a little vague. Sure, the basic premise is the same as the original film;cemetery was moved, but really they just moved the headstones and left the corpses in the ground, which when you think about it makes no sense. Surely the construction of such a large suburban neighborhood would have required a lot of digging, somebody must have noticed those bodies. So I understand why there are pissed off ghosts, the film just never defines what the ghosts can do, why they're doing what they're doing what they're doing, or why they kidnap the youngest daughter. There's some throwaway line about how she can see ghosts, and is at the height of her purity (which comes across as creepier a sentiment than much of the ghostly activity), and yet once the ghosts kidnap her they don't appear to be very interested in her, and she just wanders around the ghost version of their house.

If the film is a bit fuzzy on the specifics of its own mythology, the finale is inexplicably vague and confusing, with the paranormal rules of the film seemingly changing at random with no visible rhyme or reason. Characters  make sudden decisions that apparently help save the day, but it's not clear how or why those decisions work, or even why anybody thought to make them. It's also impossible to determine the fate of many of the major characters, with at least one person appearing to die before the credits roll, only to show up alive and well with no explanation in a post-credits tag. Really, it was surprising how confusing the ending was, and I suspect some studio notes may be to blame. Or perhaps the film was rushed into development before the script could be fixed and they just never figured it out. Whatever the reasons, the ending was enough to drop my rating by half a point or so.

Final Rating: 2.5(out of 5)

Friday, January 22, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Saulabi

A couple of months ago, while my friend and frequent writing partner Rik (he of the Visiting & Revisiting series, and The Cinema 4 Pylon blog) was up in the LA area for the day, we took a quick trip into Chinatown. It was ostensibly just a little bit of sightseeing as we killed time before a movie we were going to see that night, but not-so-secretly I was hoping to stumble across one of those video stores that specializes in cheap DVDs of Asian films not available in the American market. As luck would have it, we stumbled across a couple such stores, and I was able to pick up a couple titles I had been looking for, and a couple of Christmas gifts as well. At the urging of the second store's proprietress, who insisted it was one of the best films on the shelves, and in order to meet the 'buy 4 get one free' offer, I picked up today's film, Saulabi, a 2002 South Korean action romance set in feudal Japan. This information is being relayed as a form of full disclosure, because the DVD I bought had only Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks, and subtitles that were burned onto the image and read both Chinese and badly translated English at the same time. It is possible that this was not the most ideal manner in which to judge this film's merits.

Around the turn of this century, South Korean filmmaking seemed to go through a sort of renaiscance, with dozens of slickly produced blockbusters hitting theatres while at the same time a new wave of young, rule-breaking filmmakers came along. Saulabi was released in 2002, and seems to have missed that rising tide of quality Korean films. Saulabi (a Korean word that roughly translates as 'he who fights') is basically a classic Greek tragedy filtered through a Samurai film, with a layer of historical Korean references that probably went over my head a lot of the time. The plot was easy enough to follow once it got going, but I'm certain there were intricacies I missed due to mistranslation, or simply owing to my ignorance of the time period. To break it down into its basics; A band of warriors travels from Korea to Japan to repair the broken Heaven's Sword and return their nation to glory. Years later, one of these warriors meets a Japanese lord and begins to work for him, while also falling in love with the lord's daughter, who is engaged to be married to the lord's master. As you can see, it's a pretty simple love triangle set within the type of honor-filled, somewhat bureaucratic minefield that a lot of Japanese tragedies take place in (I'm thinking specifically of Chushingura, in which the entire sad affair is begun because a feudal lord didn't have enough tatami mats when a visiting official arrived).

The plot of the film is solid enough for this type of thing, but let's be honest, most of the appeal lies in the fight choreography, and on that front, Saulabi is a big disappointment. For the first hour there are only two brief fight scenes, one of which I'm not sure related to the rest of the story at all (again, not the best subtitles). The swordplay is of the old school Kendo variety common in most samurai films, although it never looks or feels natural. I've been able to find very little information about this film online, but an editorial review on makes the claim that fight choreography was done by frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator Eizi Takakura. The problem is, I can find no such name listed anywhere, let alone on an Akira Kurosawa film. IMDb doesn't list most of the crew, but I have trouble believing that anyone who worked with the great Akira Kurosawa had anything to do with this film's fight scenes. I saw a documentary a few years ago about LARPers who made their own PVC weapons and engaged in fake combat on the weekends, and the fighting in that film looked more realistic. In fact, on almost every front Saulabi feels like very little effort went into it. At one point the lord's retinue is travelling through a small Japanese village, which looks authentically like the time period it's supposed to be set in, but the director makes no effort to hide the very modern houses and buildings that are visible just behind this set. It also doesn't help that the lead, Sang Hyun-lee, wears a series of incredibly unconvincing fake beards, and acts with a sort of eternal poutiness.

I don't want to be completely negative about the film, but I must warn you that it's just not very good. It does, however, pick up steam during its final half hour, which appears to span a few months but, at the end, is suddenly revealed to have spanned about 20 years. I'm not saying the acting, directing, or fighting suddenly improve, I'm just saying the amount of incident on screen starts to pile up and it gets comparably much more fun to watch, culminating in an ending so tragic and sudden it inspires dismissive laughter more than the tears the filmmakers were obviously hoping for.

Final Rating: 2(out of 5)

A Visiting & Revisiting Special: Should There Be a Boycott of the 2016 Academy Awards?

This is the second part of a discussion between me and my partner Rik over on The Cinema 4 Pylon. Please head over there to read the first part at:

4. Do you believe a threatened African-American artistic boycott of the 88th Academy Awards in February will be effective in solving the problem of racial diversity within the Academy? Or does it need to be much broader in scope to have any real effect?

Aaron: Do I think it will solve the problem? No, definitely not. Do I think it will help to bring attention and to the problem and the need to fix it? I will answer with a resounding yes. Already the publicity has convinced most rational people that this is a real issue. As I said earlier, Hollywood will only really follow the money; it has no real political or social leanings of its own, no matter what George Clooney wants to think. Hollywood can lead the charge on issues of social justice, and it definitely has in the past, but only once it’s been proven to be profitable. I don’t mean to sound cynical about the Dream Factory, but I think it helps explain why the entertainment industry can be this weird mix of progressive ideology and regressive social viewpoints.

As it stands, I think this situation has been a total embarrassment for the Academy, and there’s really no way they can just ignore this. Last year, when Selma star David Oyelowo was snubbed for Best Actor, the Academy could at least say ‘Yeah, but the film was nominated for Best Picture, so it’s not like we’re ignoring you.’ They could hide behind that attitude even when Selma lost to a movie about a middle-aged white guy grappling with his insecurities. But this year, with so many great performances and films helmed by and featuring people of color, how is it none of them got nominated? It boggles the mind that Straight Outta Compton only got recognized for its screenplay, because it is otherwise the exact sort of movie the Academy loves to gush over: popular, crowd-pleasing, and based on a true story. It hits all of the expected and required beats so perfectly that its lack of inclusion can almost only be read as racist.

And don’t get me started on Creed (which, full disclosure, I have not yet seen). A widely acclaimed, profitable movie written and directed by a black man, about a black man, and the only nomination in the film is for the old white guy that helps him out. This is sort of to be expected, though, because if there’s one thing Hollywood loves more than money, it’s patting themselves on the back, and Stallone’s character in Creed must have hit that sweet spot of white liberal guilt that allowed Academy voters to vicariously feel like the good guy, helping the disaffected black youth. A similar phenomenon was likely at play when The Blind Side and The Help were massive hits awarded with Academy recognition. People want a social issue that they can be the hero of, and so they see Sylvester Stallone helping this kid out, and think to themselves ‘Man, I’d love to be that guy, and prove we aren’t all racist assholes.’ This should not be read as me stating that Stallone doesn’t deserve the Oscar nomination; everything I hear is that he’s quite good in the film, and of course he was nominated for the original Rocky way back when. But to single him out in a film that is getting a lot of acclaim for both its star, Michael B. Jordan, and its co-writer/director, Ryan Coogler, seems a bit odd.

Rik: As we were putting this piece together, Academy president Cheryl Boon Isaacs came out with a statement lamenting the lack of diversity in her organization. Isaacs, who is black, is the only non-white member of the 43-member executive branch, and she put out the statement in response to both Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith, who both stated they would not be attending the Oscars this year because of the lack of diversity in the nominations. Isaacs said the Academy was instituting a five-year plan, with a goal of 2020, to drastically expand the membership of the Academy to make it more racially and gender diverse.

I personally wish that someone besides Jada Pinkett-Smith had been the first to really speak up about this issue, because she is married to someone whom it is widely believed should have received an Oscar nomination this year. Lee himself had his own horse in the race with Chi-Raq. While their announcements were certainly heard, they could potentially just be perceived as so many sour grapes. On the other side, Lee also just received an Honorary Oscar in November for his lifetime of film work, and so his absence from the February ceremony when they call his name will be noticed greatly.

No call for a wider boycott has actually been put out, but what if it did? I am not sure it will be all that effective without Hollywood itself changing massively in the types of films it puts out and how it hires minorities across the board. But if a boycott did occur, it would have to include far more than just African-Americans or Asian-Americans or women... it would need to be as diverse as the intended goal. Isaacs said the Academy's goal was 2020, and that seems to have been said to buy them some time, but will people be accepting of this type of a “wait and see” response? The only real way to get the Academy's notice is to hit them where it hurts the most: a full-scale boycott of the broadcast itself, and that might including hitting potential advertisers in the pocketbook as well. Otherwise, it will be sound and fury. And then, the only option would be to wait for five years to see if anything has happened.

And I somewhat agree on your point about Stallone’s nomination possibly fulfilling a form of white liberal guilt on the part of the members who voted for it, but from my side, I just see it as another example of a Supporting Actor award nomination (or even win) being used to recognize a longtime member for his successful career in Hollywood.

5. Will you skip watching the Oscars this year in recognition of a possible boycott, or can you not keep away?

Rik: I guess the question that we should have asked if “Would you support such a boycott?” My answer would be no, even though I am as desirous of an outcome of wider diversity in the industry as the rest. I just don’t think it is the solution to the problem.

As for skipping the Oscars? Not a friggin’ chance. Can't happen; won't happen. Unless the response is so big that they have to cancel the broadcast, I will be watching the Oscars this year. I would gladly boycott sponsors of the show, but their commercials don't affect us anyway since we purposefully watch the film on a delay so we can zip past most of the ads. Can’t boycott something if you don’t even know they are sponsoring something. (I suppose a list would get compiled, so maybe then…)

I haven't purposefully skipped the Oscars since I was a kid, so why would I start now? It's one of the few ceremonies that I continue to celebrate, even if I readily admit that I don't usually agree with most of the nominations or winners. For me, it is the last bastion of old Hollywood that most of the world gets to see, and I don't want it to go away. They just need to be more inclusive across the board.

Aaron: Yeah, you pretty much answered for me; I will definitely be watching the ceremony. At this point there is no way the issue won’t be addressed, either by a presenter, a winner, or host Chris Rock, and I’m looking forward to that. But then, I’d just be watching the awards anyway. While I realize the awards show is flawed, it’s always been that way. The movies that get nominated and awarded are never the ones I want, and the award is next to meaningless to anybody not in that room. It’s Hollywood congratulating itself for a few hours, and selling advertising space while doing so. This year the scandal gives the show the opportunity to be relevant and meaningful for the first time… maybe ever.

I see there have been some calls for Chris Rock to join the boycott and step down from his role as host this year, and I dearly hope he does not listen. If he leaves the show, sure, the parade of white stars and producers will paint an ugly portrait of racism in Hollywood, but it will also deprive the show of the one voice that could honestly address the situation from the viewpoint of someone affected by it. If we see Brad Pitt get up there and talk about diversity in Hollywood, or George Clooney talk about how Hollywood should lead the charge on these issues, it’s going to feel just as masturbatory as the rest of the ceremony. If Chris Rock is up there speaking, or if Spike Lee actually was allowed on stage, it would be an opportunity to actually speak out and affect some change.

In the end I think my thoughts echo those of Viola Davis, who said “The problem is not with the Oscars, the problem is with the Hollywood movie-making system.” The Academy Awards are a reflection of the year for the Hollywood studios; it doesn’t fully reflect the face of what is really going on in American cinema. A lot of the most vibrant and diverse works being produced will never make it onto a ballot, partially because a lot of those films, and the artists working on them, are non-union and therefore have no voice in the voting process.

Take the 2015 film Tangerine, which is miles away from the type of fare the Oscars usually reward, and is therefore nowhere to be seen in the list of nominees. Tangerine follows the story of two transgender women as they scour West Hollywood for the pimp who has wronged one of them, and was one of the most energetic and vibrant films I saw last year. The film was shot for around $100,000, and on an iPhone no less (though you wouldn’t notice it if you didn’t know that information beforehand), which was necessitated by the fact that no studio in Hollywood would have dared fund the film. Like I said, not the type of film the Academy would normally praise, and yet that speaks to the blinkered existence in which the Academy lives.

So, you have a vibrant film scene happening under the radar in Hollywood, a scene that is inclusive of all comers, and more representative of what most people experience in the world around them. The fact that these films, and filmmakers, are excluded from awards recognition is not really the fault of the Oscars, outside of the fact that union membership seems to be an unofficial requirement of becoming a voting member. In order for the Academy Awards to recognize more diverse works, they need to urge their members to look outside of the big studio output, or the big studios need to start making a more diverse product. Right now it’s a little bit like a feedback loop; the studios continue making whitewashed tentpole movies and crowd-pleasing dramas, because that’s what audiences and awards shows like. The awards shows like those whitewashed crowd-pleasers because that’s the only thing being made, and on and on and on it will go until someone decides to make a change. I believe the decision to expand Academy membership and recruit new members is the right one, but it remains to be seen if it will be enough. I’ll tell you one thing, I am actually more interested in seeing this year’s Oscars than I have been in quite awhile.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Jupiter Ascending

One of the great paradoxes of the modern age of filmmaking is that a large number of movies are made every year that are seemingly designed with my particular tastes in mind, and yet I like so few of them. Slickly produced action and horror movies in the 'isn't this shit awesome?!' mold flood the theatres every year, and every year I dutifully check in on them and feel nothing bit a nagging boredom as they go through the motions of presenting me with everything my 13 year old self would have killed to see, with production values my younger self could never have imagined. Like Priest, about a man of the cloth hunting down vampires in an old west setting, or Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, which is about Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires, or I, Frankenstein, about the titular doctor's monster fighting demons throughout the ages. I should love them, but they all feel so lifeless, so free of personality and individuality, that I can't seem to muster any enjoyment out of them. Which made it such a modest joy to finally sit down and watch Jupiter Ascending, the latest (and possibly last) big budget mashup of pulpy comic book influences to come from the Wachowski Siblings. Say what you will about it's byzantine plot, so overstuffed that it feels like three movies stuffed into one, or complain all you want about the silliness of Channing Tatum playing a half-wolf, gravity-defying surfer dude by the improbably name of Caine Wise trying to save the life of Mila Kunis as a housekeeper who is secretly the intergalactic queen of our section of the universe with the even more improbable name of Jupiter Jones, but at least the film has a personality.

After the Matrix, the Wachowskis have had trouble recapturing success, though personally I've found everything they've worked on to be worthy of attention. I wasn't a huge fan of the Matrix sequels, particularly their mix of boring committee dialogue of the type that sank the Star Wars prequels with MTV-ready rave scenes, but they at least showcased filmmakers taking the philosophical discussions within their film seriously. I'm quite fond of Speed Racer, and Cloud Atlas may be their masterpiece. Although these films all have their followers, they've each fared successively worse at the box office. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal before Jupiter Ascending came out, the Wachowskis seemed to realize that their Hollywood moment was coming to an end: "We've been lucky," Lana says. "People at studios have been interested in our crazy, strange brand of complexity. And we've been allowed to keep making them. Will that continue? Probably not." "But it was a good run," Andy added.

So, with the knowledge that this would probably be their last chance to play around with a huge studio budget at their command, the Wachowskis appear to have thrown every leftover script idea they had into one go-for-broke, crazy ass movie, peppering things throughout with references to the sci-fi and fantasy properties that have inspired them. The film isn't the most original, groundbreaking story you're likely to see, and they actually pilfer a couple of concepts from their own films, but it has a goofiness that overpowered me into just grinning along with every ridiculous development. The film's major downfall, and it is a rather big one, is that the duo haven't gotten any better at dialogue or exposition. It's never a good sign when a film begins with a voice-over that explains the rules of the world we're about to see, and Jupiter Ascending frequently feels like it's stopping to impart jargon-filled information we need to digest in order to keep up. This is something they've struggled with through their entire career, but it's at its worst in this film, even though the exposition scenes usually come with a few crazy looking aliens.

Jupiter Ascending is no classic, but it's better than its current reputation would suggest. For once there's a film that appeals to everything 13 year old me would want, complete with totally awesome skating scenes and a 'chosen one' story that thankfully doesn't feature a drama-killing prophecy. Taken on those grounds, the film is a lot of fun, although it does make me excited to see what the Wachowskis might do now with a smaller focus, a tighter budget, and more polished dialogue.

Final rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets

I first became aware of the band Pulp around the same time most people became aware of the band Pulp. Different Class, their big breakthrough album after twelve years toiling away and building a critical following, came out in America in early 1996, and I picked it up in the waning days of my senior year of high school. Different Class was a milestone record, sporting mega-hits Common People and Disco 2000, and has been one of those rare albums that never quite leaves my rotation. I put it on fairly regularly to this day, almost exactly twenty years later. It took me awhile to work my way into the Pulp back catalog, which has several solid albums in it, but I followed them going forward pretty closely. They fit right in with the other groups I was obsessing over at the time; Blur, Suede, Morrissey, James, Oasis, Radiohead, and other bands benefiting from the britpop boom of the nineties. But Pulp had an awkwardness, a bookishness that spoke to me as an awkward, bookish teen. Frontman Jarvis Cocker's awkward, spastic dancing and androgynous, angular looks had a style of cool that felt more achievable to me than the pin-up-ready good looks of Brett Anderson or Damon Albarn. Pulp may not have ever occupied the top spot in my favorite bands of that boom (that honor belonged to Suede), but they've always held a special place in my heart. In 2000, during a trip to London, I made it a point to visit Bar Italia, the coffee shop in SoHo that they sing about in the Different Class track of the same name. I still have the saucer and cup I used that night.

Bar Italia, with a cheap disposable camera.
Pulp's sudden success after years of work didn't quite sit well with the band, and they broke up in 2002, shortly after the release of We Love Life. Jarvis Cocker remained active with a couple of solid solo albums and some appearances with other artists, but most people figured Pulp was done for. So imagine my pleasant surprise at the news that Pulp was reuniting in 2012 for an international tour, culminating in, I hoped, a new album. Unfortunately the album never came, and the tour was instead a chance for Jarvis and Co. to give their fans a proper farewell (as Cocker puts it in the film, he wanted to give the band a "happy ending"). We never got a new Pulp album, but we did get Pulp: A Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets, which documents the final night of the farewell tour, as Pulp plays their hometown of Sheffield, England.

The film is a bit of an odd beast, and will likely only appeal to a small segment of viewers, even those who already like Pulp. It's not quite a concert film, as it never shows an entire song performed in its entirety. It's not quite a band history, as the documentary only briefly touches on things that would already be known by most fans. The film attempts to be a street level snapshot and ode to Sheffield, which is a fairly blue collar industrial town in the north of England, and yet we don't get a very detailed view of the place. With all these half measures, it might be a bit surprising that I enjoyed the film as much as I did. But the film does have moments of beauty, and it has aspirations beyond simply showing the band playing their hits, or giving a standard rise-fall-rise rock-doc narrative. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets aims to give a feeling of the place of Sheffield, if not the accurate image of it, and it tries to show how this feeling shaped the band Pulp, which in turn shaped how the townspeople of Sheffield see themselves now.

The concert footage that is on display in the film looks electric, reaching its pinnacle with an energetic, inclusive version of Common People that should renew the song's energy to those who have tired of the two decades worth of overplay and questionable cover versions. It's enough to make one wish for an actual concert film, with the full concert on display. It's hard to complain about what we have, though, when it's as idiosyncratic and enjoyable as this. I'm having trouble thinking of another rock documentary that had a moment as odd and beautiful as a diner full of senior citizens singing an acoustic version of Help The Aged.

Final Rating: 4 (out of a possible 5)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

2016 Movie A Day: Bone Tomahawk

This is something I put on partly in order to hold me over for The Hateful Eight (which I still have yet to see), as it's another talky western starring Kurt Russell in what is essentially a starter-beard version of the one he wears in the Tarantino film. Bone Tomahawk does its best to hide the shoe-string budget it appears to have had, and yet it falls short at a few key moments. Many stretches of the film are clearly framed to avoid revealing anything that might ruin the illusion of its historical setting, and the town we start the film in has the look of one of those well maintained ghost towns you can take guided tours through. Overall the film fails to convey a sense of the wide open country the characters are travelling through, and sometimes gives the impression that Kurt Russell and his posse are camping out in somebodies backyard. That isn't necessarily a fatal flaw, but giving the film, or at least the film's world, a wider, less organized scope would have heightened the stakes considerably. It would also have helped disguise some of the rougher patches of the script, and a few of the more one-note performances. Outside of Russell, who is great as always, and Richard Jenkins, who is flat out phenomenal, none of the performers rise above the stock characters they've been asked to play. Patrick Wilson is his usual wooden self (though not without his charms), and Matthew Fox never feels like he's anything other than a 21st century man putting on period clothes for a long weekend of Civil War reenacting.

It's wrong to fault a film for what are, basically, unavoidable budgetary problems, but too often the film settles for 'good' when it could have been something special. Still, Russell and Jenkins carry the film with their natural, lived-in chemistry. Into the last 30 minutes, Bone Tomahawk takes a sharp turn into horror film territory, and although this is obviously the goal from the outset, it's still an effectively jarring transition. Suddenly, after all the languorous walking and talking, the film suddenly becomes an incredibly gory cannibal movie. The end credits feature a theme song that tells the story of the film, common to a lot of old Italian westerns, but the film could have used a bit more of the visual zeal and energy also common to those films.

I'll give this a solid 3 (out of 5). I liked it, enough to possibly watch it again, but only enough to recommend it to those already inclined to be interested in a talky, slow, gory western film.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Visiting and Revisiting: After Life (1998) Pt. 1

Aaron: Welcome back to Visiting and Revisiting with Rik and Aaron, a somewhat regular feature where we take turns introducing each other to films that are important to us, but of which the other one has somehow missed. We then discuss the film in blog posts that span both of our sites, in Rik’s case, The Cinema 4 Pylon, and in mine, Working Dead Productions. This is our first installment since October, and also our first non-horror film discussion. The film this time comes recommended by me, and it’s one I’m very excited about discussing, so without further ado…

After Life came out in 1998, when its director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, was 36 years old. Though he had already made a name for himself among international film critics three years earlier with Maborosi, After Life cemented Kore-eda’s position as an important new voice in Japanese cinema. I have not been able to watch any of Kore-eda’s early documentary work, although it seems to follow that his beginnings there, particularly in documenting the emergence of AIDS in Japan, formed much of his style as he transitioned to narrative filmmaking. Maborosi and After Life flow with the unhurried, documentarian’s eye for mundane details that nonetheless speak volumes about his character’s lives, a trait that he has carried with him through the following years. Kore-eda’s films also feature a warmth and humanity that is surprising in its depth, and a gentleness that invites the viewer in, prompting us to find our own meanings and messages within the film. Kore-eda’s films feature a surplus of wonderfully realized individuals, and a distinct lack of recognizable antagonists (a fact that may be hindering his commercial prospects here in the West). Even the ripped-from-the-headlines drama Nobody Knows and his award-winning Still Walking, which both feature his most villainous characters, portray those people as complex and sympathetic rather than vile cutouts.

After Life, briefly stated, is an allegorical film built around one deceptively simple question: “What one memory would you like to take with you into eternity?” The film poses this question early on, and then dedicates two hours to delicately and perceptively exploring all of the ramifications implied by said question. As a group of 22 disparate individuals find themselves in a slightly rundown bureaucratic building, they are told they will be moving on to whatever awaits them beyond death within one week. For three days they will have regular interviews with a group of purgatorial social workers with the aim of choosing one memory out of their entire life that they would want to live within for eternity. After the third day, the staff goes about the business of filming the memory, and on Saturday all of the films will be screened, after which the dead will move on. It’s a concept that could easily devolve into high camp, black comedy, or sentimental drivel, and yet Kore-eda’s style grounds everything in a gentle, subdued manner.

When After Life came out in 1998, I was 20 years old and enrolled in the University of Alaska, Anchorage. I was aware of the film, having heard about it from a pair of teacher’s assistants in my Japanese class, although their critique left much to be desired. “It was OK. Interesting,” was basically what their reaction to catching this film in a theatre amounted to. I wish I had looked further into the film myself, because it would be another four years before I finally tracked down a DVD copy. When I finally watched the film, it was while my ex-girlfriend (current wife) was out of town for a few days, the longest we had been apart since moving in together a year earlier, and I had been in a bit of a melancholy state. Very early into the film I began smiling, and I don’t think I stopped until well after the end credits rolled. It’s not that the film is funny, per se, it’s that the overall feeling is so warm and inviting, so modestly charming, the characters are uniformly likable, the rundown building they work and live in is so homey. Everything works together to invite the viewer in and encourage them to stay. After each of my viewings I’ve felt the urge to immediately begin playing the film again. I think it should be obvious by now, but After Life is a film I absolutely adore. Over the last fifteen years I’ve come to the conclusion that it is as close to a perfect film as any I’ve ever seen.

Hirokazu Kore-eda has a pretty solid critical reputation, and most of his films get positive reviews at Cannes and all the other major festivals, and yet he’s never really broken out of that audience. Rik, I’m wondering if you’d had any previous awareness of this film or his other output, beyond the times when I might have brought it up. As much as I recommend his works, and this film in particular, you are the first person who has actually listened to me and watched the film, and so I’m really excited to see what you have to say about it.

Rik: I have been aware of Kore-eda’s reputation as a growing force in cinema for some time, but had just never buckled down and tried to watch one of his films. My massive database of “must-see” films comprised of titles that have been nominated for major awards or appeared at festivals like Cannes (for example) certainly has some Kore-eda titles contained within it, but I had yet to tackle his filmography. And yes, I do remember you telling me about him from time to time, but when you have thousands of films before you already, it really became a case of “throw another log on the fire”. I would try to get to it eventually. And now I have.

I was recently reading an article onThe Guardian website where Kore-eda was, not really upset, but just mildly anxious that people have been comparing his style to Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese master director whose style became increasingly minimalist throughout his career, as he created a series of profound, classic family dramas in the late ‘40s and through the ‘50s. Kore-eda considered the comparison a compliment, of course, but felt that his own films were more like Mikio Naruse, who created leisurely paced, working class dramas for four decades in Japan, or the British director, Ken Loach, known for his slice of life films about ordinary people, though with the occasional more political thrust of films like The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Hidden Agenda.

In all three cases – Naruse, Loach, and Kore-eda – the word we are looking for seems to be “humanist”. In Kore-eda’s films, at least the two I have now seen (Hana: The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai [Hana yori mo naho] being the other one), the concern seems to lie not so much with the world in which the characters thrive but in the day-to-day details of their lives and their emotional states. In After Life, I was struck by how quickly he was able to make me care about so many different characters in such a short time, often with a minimal amount of dialogue or personal details. If you are accepting of the premise – that of an existential agency that moves people from their lives on Earth to eternal rest in a heaven-like state – then it should not take much to get you wrapped up quickly in the comforting arms of this film.

Aaron: Rik, am I alone in getting a little bit of a Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry vibe from the final parts of this film, where the memories are being recreated on a small soundstage? It seems not-so-distantly related to films like Be Kind Rewind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Synecdoche, New York, though of course predating those works by several years.

Rik: You are not alone at all, sir. I definitely sensed a similar Gondry-esque vibe, though of course it is not taken to the same level of absurdity as things in those others films. The effect here is more workmanlike; even when the agency workers meet up with problems in the course of recreating memories, and even when Shiori’s boss takes her to task for supposedly screwing up, the means of achieving their goals are through reason and hard work, and never centered on fantastical means (even taking in the actual setting of the film into consideration).

Aaron: I’ll agree with you about the workmanlike nature of the film, which I think keeps things from becoming too precious or twee. It’s like the common explanation of the difference between an artist and a craftsman. I’d argue that Kore-eda is both, but I think in temperament he falls closer to craftsman. His concern is telling the story clearly, and in documenting the actions and emotions. I don’t think he’s quite so worried about imparting a general message. As I’ve said, I believe his films allow you the freedom to make up your own mind as to how to interpret them. Which, of course, mirrors what the characters in After Life are doing. Their job isn’t to leave their subjects with a sense of power, beauty and towering importance; their job is to recreate, as accurately as possible, what an actual moment felt, looked, sounded and smelt like. And because these characters are not artists, they approach everything from the pragmatic mind of a social worker, coming up with ways to get a breeze just right, or to mimic the look of an outdoor park bench from inside a small soundstage. Again, they aren’t trying to dictate the emotion; the emotion comes from the viewer. This film is such a perfect melding between style and content.

Of course the big question here is; have you been thinking about what one memory you would choose? I won’t ask you to share it if you have, but I imagine you’ve been giving some thought to the subject. It’s one that has returned to me quite regularly since I first saw this film, and it seems to change from year to year. Once, it was a memory of sitting on the shores of Loch Ness at midnight, later it was a memory of me and my wife laying in the grass in Washington after a particularly epic outdoor concert, after the birth of my daughter I’ve had plenty to choose from, and now I might risk Shiori’s ire by choosing that most clichéd memory; a trip to Disneyland. Our last trip to Disney, my wife and daughter and I, and it was just a relaxed, good day where everything went right, and we ended it with a quiet, fancy dinner where we sat around making easy conversation. That hour at the restaurant, where we sat at a table warming ourselves (it was a chilly day) with good food and laughter seems as nice a moment to live in as any I can think of.

Rik: That answer is easy: I can’t think of one. Or rather, I can’t decide on one. If you were to ask me in one of my more depressed states, I might say that I would like to remember the moment of my death throughout eternity. That is not to be shocking or maudlin, but remembering when you died is a solid way to remind yourself that you were once alive. But if you were to ask me when I was in a good mood (which is rare these days), it might be a moment where I am at dinner with all of my old friends in Anchorage, or a moment when I was creating surrealistic cartoons in my dad’s camper a couple of years ago with my brothers, or when I was four and played on the steps of the 4th Avenue Theatre while going to a showing of Pinocchio. Or it might be an image of me watching Destroy All Monsters on the Channel 11 monster matinee show, where I am sitting on a blanket in our living room eating a bowl of freshly made buttered popcorn. There are a number of moments I could choose – and unsurprisingly, most of them would have nobody else in them -- and it really would depend on how much I would wish to reward or punish myself at that moment of choosing.

It might surprise many that know me to find that a visit to Disneyland wouldn’t be my choice, considering how important it was for me to finally get there and also just how much I have been there over the past decade. That is mainly because, with being there so much now, it would be hard to pick a single memory. Also, I wouldn’t want to tee off Shiori, because she is a cupcake.

Aaron: One thing that bothers me a bit about the ‘one memory for eternity’ concept is that it kind of discounts how our memory works. When we think of one single event from our past, we’re actually thinking of hundreds of other tiny things that went into that one moment. When one of the deceased chooses to remember sitting on a bench with her fiancé before he goes off to war, how much of that context remains once every other memory is gone? Will she remember that her fiancé went to war? That her fiancé died? Will she even remember who the man was? This puzzle isn’t enough to dampen my enjoyment of the film in the least, but I find myself bumping up against it nonetheless whenever I think back to it.

Rik: I agree with you about the workings of memory, or at least our perception of how it works. But that brings up another problem that I had with the memory constructs in the film (and in many other uses of memory in films beyond After Life).

In my experience, our memories don’t have our faces in them. I remember the faces of other people that were at someplace or were doing something, but for myself, there is just a sense of myself, not my image. That is something that bothered me with their recreations in this film. I never see my face in my dreams, and when I have memory flashbacks, the same is true. That may not be true for everyone, especially narcissists, but I would have to believe that it is probably common.

Movies that hew closely to not showing faces in memories or dreams still often cheat and have the protagonist look into a mirror or pool of water, but I cannot recall that ever happening in one of my dreams, nor in my memories. This may be due to low self-esteem in how I see myself (or prefer not to, as it were). What I do have in those dreams and memories, however, is a complete awareness of myself, sometimes to a negative effect, but I am always in control of my sense of self, if not anything else in the dream.

Aaron: Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’m thinking back to various memories and trying to determine whether I visualize myself in them or not. But now I’m putting myself in all of my memories, and I can’t be sure if it’s because you called attention to it, or if I’ve always done that. I think, honestly, it might be a bit of a mixture. I know a lot of my really old memories I see from a third person perspective, because I’ve formed those memories as much from what people have told me about them as from my actual experience. As an adult, however, I do believe you’re correct, and I don’t see myself in them. But for dreams, that’s another story. I tend to shift focus a lot in dreams, where one minute I’m me, doing something, and then another I’m in a different body seeing what I’m doing.

I think that might help explain how the memory constructs would work; perhaps they’d give you the shifting experience of both seeing and feeling what is going on. Or perhaps the memory itself will lock you into your own perspective. Or perhaps, because we are given no information at all about what happens after this one week, the memory is literally a keepsake you take with you as a memento of your life. Maybe eternity does resemble the popular perception of heaven, and the film is something you can put on one night to remind yourself of what you were before. There are so many possibilities that exist, and we’ve got so little information with which to narrow down the options.

Part Two of this discussion can be found on the Cinema 4 Pylon blog by following this link: