Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Top 10 Tony Scott Films

[This is an entry in my Favorite Directors Blogathon.]

It can sometimes be difficult to separate out Tony Scott's gifts as a populist filmmaker when stacked against less skilled "cacophonists" like Michael Bay who followed in his wake and whom he left in the dust with his late-career reinvention. But in Scott's films are a care for his actors wholly absent for so many of today's blockbusters, and his movies consistently offered up some of the finest, most sincere performances to be found in action films. Scott's unabashed affection for working-class heroes forced to rise to the occasion gives his films a humanity that makes even his wildest efforts (and most savage, like Man on Fire) are not merely meat grinders. Not everything Scott turned to gold, but until his tragically truncated end, he found ways to turn the inherent excesses of blockbuster filmmaking into aesthetic statements rather than wan spectacle. He will be missed, but at least we still have his work, of which these 10 stand out as highlights:

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Hole (Joe Dante, 2009/2012)

At last getting any form of non-festival domestic distribution, Joe Dante's family-oriented (family-friendly may be a stretch) horror film The Hole can be seen this weekend in 3D in Los Angeles and, surprise of surprises, metro Atlanta. A minor Dante work, it nevertheless shows off the director's capable horror chops with a reference-heavy but straightforward film about children forced to confront their darkest fears. But rather than chuck in every scare he can think of, Dante focuses on the fears based on traumas rather than the irrational phobias (barring that of the youngest child, too young to have internalized the real horrors of the world). The result is surprisingly moving, and part of the welcome handful of recent, all-ages horror movies that challenge kids, particularly the stop-motion work out of Laika. That The Hole, Coraline and ParaNorman have morals to them in many ways makes them some of the best mature horror films in years.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Don't Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

[This is my (very belated) August entry in Blind Spots.]

Don't Look Now begins with a fade out from rain cascading upon a puddle to shutter-shielded glass windows letting a few obscured rays of sunlight through the slats. These are soothing images, the first in a film filled with sights that would normally offer comfort and warmth. In Nicolas Roeg's hands, however, they become unsettling in a way that cannot be pinpointed or explained, an imperceptible dissonance that gradually creates discomfort. This mood carries through to the following scene, in which tranquil shots of a young girl, Christine, in a red coat playing by a pond are intercut with her brother riding on a bike nearby and her parents, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie), working in the house.

Roeg sets up the scene with gliding camera movements and dives into and back out of cuts. It instantly establishes the movie as a gravity elevator, constantly sucked through the core, propelled back out and slowed by the pull until the camera begins to fall and start the process all over again. Reflective imagery inverts Christine, who is then warped further by a red-coated doppelganger seen in a slide John has of a Venetian cathedral he has been commissioned to restore. The vague intensity slowly building in these swooning movements and careful editing reaches its apex when the three separate but linked images run together: the boy runs over a pane of glass inexplicably on the ground and crashes his bike; the red-and-white ball Christine was playing with floating on the surface of the water as a stand in for the red-clad, white girl now dwelling under it; and John sensing something wrong when he spills some water on the image and the girl's Venetian "double" disappears in a thick streak of red. A suite of domestic horror, this opening scene captures the full feature in miniature and stands on its own as a complete action of mood, construction and tragic execution that would make for one of the greatest short films of all time if the movie stopped there.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise (Spike Lee, 2010)

Spike's follow-up to his landmark When the Levees Broke begins as an incisive continuation of his best documentary, but the sheer range of issues plaguing New Orleans ultimately works against Lee by splitting focus among a throng of horrific problems each worthy of their own in-depth investigation. No longer fit under the umbrella of Katrina, all these issues sideline some of the other topics Lee covers. Rather than build to a unified snapshot of a linking subject, If God Is Willing merely seems to culminate in the notion that someone up there does not like New Orleans. This occasionally makes for moments as powerful as anything in When the Levees Broke, but the overall documentary is too torn between everything that catches its eye that it lacks the same impact.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell is a man so wracked by his carnal urges that he walks in convulsive, post-coital spasms and pants in ragged thrusts when he runs. At the conclusion of World War II, the seaman joins his comrades on a beach in the Pacific, wrestling, copulating with a woman made of sand and masturbating in a grimly violent celebration of peace. Back home, Freddie reports for a military psych evaluation, a farcical conveyor belt that feeds disturbed soldiers through a handful of perfunctory, still-new techniques in a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health. The results clearly show an unwell man, but director Paul Thomas Anderson cuts abruptly to the sailor working as a mall photographer, posing families into the waxy, beaming photos that define the period. Freddie effectively applies mortar to the bricks of postwar conformity, cementing it by turning every family into a false, overlit, eerie perfect image. Eventually, the irony gets to this loner, and he finds himself thrown into the wildernerss to drift.

Unable to fit in with even smaller communities, Freddie eventually stumbles his way to a yacht about to set sail, Anderson follows behind the man and racks the background in and out of focus, signifying Freddie's desire to be a part of the gathering on-board and his knowledge that he would not fit in. (In a less abstract way, it may also just be a visualization of Freddie's perpetual state of drunkenness, brought on by his homemade, paint-thinner-laced hooch.) Soon, Freddie wakes up in a cot on the ship, invited to meet the man in charge. The man (Philip Seymour Hoffman), does not give his name. Instead, he quizzes Freddie with a tone of disappointment, like a father whose boy has come home late. This puts Freddie at ease as much as it fills him with an embarrassment he does not typically feel as a freely fighting and fucking scoundrel. The man invites Freddie to remain with him, and the spastic, vulgar seaman soon finds himself the right-hand man in a burgeoning cult movement.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012)

Of the many pleasures to be found in Dredd, Pete Travis' lean, nasty bottle episode of a film, perhaps the greatest is the lack of cumbersome setup that so dreadfully weighs down many comic book films. The only backstory for the protagonist and the world he inhabits is delivered by the main character himself in a terse voiceover that condense the hour of setting and character establishment that has become de rigeur for franchise starters to a mere minute or two. The Earth is an irradiated wasteland, and the only inhabitable area in the remnants of the United States is a vast, concrete-walled region known as Mega City One. Keeping the 800 million boxed-in residents of this massive slum in order are a group of peacekeepers known as Judges, authorized to pass and execute judgment on the street. Oh, and one of these Judges is named Dredd.

And that's all she wrote. Cut from this sparest of setups straight into a fracas, Dredd (Karl Urban) chasing down a car full of drug addicts as they fire wildly at the Judge on their trail. Set aside but a few more minutes after this swift action sequence to lay out the film's plot: assigned to take a rookie made psychic by radiation exposure (Olivia Thirlby) on patrol, the two head to a towering slum block to investigate a gang message killing. What they find is a 200-story building entirely under the control of a savage gang leader, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) looking to protect her manufacturing plant for Mega City One's hottest new drug, Slo-Mo. Literally locking the building down, Ma-Ma forces Dredd and Anderson to fight scores of bad guys tasked with collecting their heads.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Samsara (Ron Fricke, 2012)

Ron Fricke's latest tone poem, Samsara, takes its name from a concept shared among Indian religions pertaining to life, death and rebirth. Its root in the constant change of the world fits the film's structure, which trades the focus of Fricke's own Baraka or Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy for a more free-associative collage of world imagery. Opening on jarring close-ups of a ritualistic dance performed by three little people, Samsara only gets more bewildering when it moves from this show to the eruption of a volcano and the cooling of lava.

Yet the titular idea also connotes a cyclical movement of life and rebirth, giving order to its vastness, and Samsara soon reveals its unifying theme to be that of various ordering properties. That opening dance, so bewildering as an introduction, soon becomes part of a larger tapestry of ritual, organization and routine of humanity in nature and urban development alike, and even those of the Earth. This explain the footage of the exploding magma and solidifying lava flows, a miniature cycle of destruction and reformation the planet has seen across hundreds of millions of years. Fricke even includes a near-bookend of Tibetan monks playing horns to wake their village, a sort of invocation and benediction that reflects the cycle of the film's loose subject matter and the organizing properties at work on all cultures.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Wavelength, Begone Dull Care, Bezhin Meadow

Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967)

Michael Snow' legendary 45-minute structuralist work feels about three times its length, a slow zoom across a vast, near-empty office to a photo on the opposite wall. Yet the time and space experiment is a fascinating work of cinema, the steady shot using variations in exposure and other in-camera tweaks to subtly transform one space into another, and to turn day into night with a filter change. Further challenging the makeup of cinema (and the audience's patience) is the soundtrack mixing synthetic an oceanic waves into steady wails of unending noise. It is an undeniably infuriating experience, but also one of the most brilliantly conceptual breakdowns of cinema ever made. And as Snow's different filters and exposures warped space and time, I found myself bizarrely moved, the director's intellectual, self-critical use of the camera also something of an exhibition of the "magic" of film. Maybe it's weird to look sentimentally upon a film with a soundtrack gradually building to the hissing shriek of a boiling kettle, but there you go. Grade: A+

Begone Dull Care (Evelyn Lambert & Norman McLaren, 1949)

This 8-minute visualization of jazz music (specifically a three-movement piece by the Oscar Peterson Trio) is a triumph of early experimental filmmaking, using paint, scratches and animation in an abstract ballet of synesthesia. The frantic layering of unclear imagery and sound prefigures so much experimental cinema, yet the sheer giddiness of its dance of light and the complex layering of painted strips and extreme-close-ups on symbols gives Begone Dull Care a vivaciousness that rates it over all but the best of the works to clearly derive inspiration from it. This kind of filmmaking can seem closed off and intellectualized, but from the rolling, danceable bounce of Peterson's licks to the listing of credits in multiple languages, Begone Dull Care is clearly meant to be enjoyed by all. Grade: A

Bezhin Meadow (Sergei Eisenstein, 1937)

Reconstructed from a suppressed work about a boy who prevents his father from destroying the collective's food, Bezhin Meadow is, even as nothing more than a progression of film stills, a work of stunning beauty. The edit of the "film" that I saw opens on lush shots of nature, of branches criss-crossing the frame, before telling the audience that the evil father has beaten his wife to death and now plots against the son for loving the Soviet cause more than him. I normally can't bear to watch reassembled stills presented as a lost film; it's like finding fragments of poetry, or uncollected bars of an unfinished composition. But the stunning composition of Eisenstein's images is so gorgeous and the rhythm of his montage so unexpectedly preserved in the stacking of these static photos that Bezhin Meadow is not only watchable but one of the great director's most stirring works. That's true despite, or maybe because, of its unbearable irony, its propagandic shots in service to some of the most insane public collusions with communism—paranoia over "wrecking" of collective farms, the lionization of the child who reports his parents—apparently insufficient to prevent harsh censorship. This is never more clear than in the scenes in which religious imagery and symbolism is mockingly upended even as the film subtly supplants Christ for Stalin and upholds a new, secular fanaticism that relies upon the stifling religious iconography it seeks to destroy. So many of Eisenstein's film bear the burden of this sad irony in retrospect, but they are never anything less than stunning, even when censoring crackdowns reduce his work to nothing more than a glorified slideshow (and we're lucky to have even that).

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ornette: Made in America (Shirley Clarke, 1985)

Restored and reissued by Milestone Film, Ornette: Made in America offers a fascinating visualization of some of the most exciting music of the 20th century. Shirley Clarke's techniques illustrate Ornette's enduring avant-garde chops, as well as the clear melody and structure that runs under even the wildest free jams. As a film about a neglected genius, Ornette could have taken the usual biographical tack of offering an overview of the artist's life interspersed with the plaudits of admirers. But though Clarke does amass some colleagues and friends to sing Ornette's praises, she wisely lets the art have the final say in the worth of its maker, using his contemporary performances as proof that he is still a vital, original voice adding mayhem to the American Songbook.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2012)

The Resident Evil movies have elevated the "It was all a dream" conceit into the longest-running Simpsons rake gag in cinema. In the series' expansion ever outward, continuity bends and narratives repeat themselves with minor variations that culminate in massive, butterfly effect divergencies. Afterlife, the previous film in the franchise and the first since the original film to feature Paul W.S. Anderson back behind the camera, gave this tendency an extra push by incorporating some of the distinct styles of the preceding three films. It brought back the claustrophobia of the first film's haunted-mansion setup, Apocalypse's street war congestion of bodies, and Extinction's sense of sheer scale and devastation (taken one further by going from a national backdrop to a global one). In folding back the series into this new film, Afterlife revealed itself to be more concerned with the self-reflexive, and video-game-like, aspects of this franchise than its straightforward upheavals with each film.

Nothing in Afterlife, however, can compare with Retribution. In a defiantly metacinematic opening, Retibution plays a sequence in reverse, instantly calling attention to the falsity of the image even before it zooms into into a black void filled with screens dotted with scenes of the Resident Evil films to this point. Alice (Milla Jovovich) pops up on one of the screens and directly addresses the audience, providing a recap of what has happened so far. I'm not one for lengthy exposition, but in a series filled with convoluted repetitions, incessant reversals and an increasing amount of clones, every little bit helps. Yet Alice's clarifications become amusingly irrelevant mere moments after she concludes her spiel, as Anderson soon plunges into constantly shifting levels of false reality that render moot an awareness of the story from sequence to sequence, much less across films.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier, 2012)

Befitting a movie about a man losing his memory, Frank Langella's character in Robot & Frank is also named Frank to keep things simple. And true to the title, his companion is a robot, assigned to care for the old man. Afflicted with not-explicitly-stated-but-obviously Alzheimer's disease, Frank gradually reveals himself to be a retired thief, still capable of pulling off small grabs and even intricate break-ins but less able to remember what it is he wants to steal, or why it is an awful idea in the first place. Initially resistant to the idea of having his diet and activity controlled by an eerily pleasant, vaguely humanoid being, Frank soon relents when he learns that he can convince his caretaker to assist in burglaries.

That Frank's children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) did not think to program the robot to prevent their once-incarcerated father from committing further crimes speak to how little they think the addled man can do, an unwitting admission of their perfunctory sense of filial duty. As Frank slowly bonds with his personal trainer and eventual accomplice, the robot becomes a complex repository for the emotionally (and, often, physically) absent parent to both vent his frustration with his kids and to vicariously attempt to make amends with them. So effortlessly does Langella invest these feelings into the emotional void of his "co-star" that Robot & Frank works best when its thin commitment to a narrative evaporates and lets the actor simply inhabit his odd role.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Beauty Is Embarrassing (Neil Berkeley, 2012)

Wayne White is too fascinating a character for the staid documentary techniques of Beauty Is Embarrassing. In fact, I found myself wishing I could have just seen the one-man show sprinkled throughout the film as a framing device than the movie itself. Nevertheless, if the point of these kinds of movies is to spark interest in their neglected subjects, then Beauty Is Embarrassing is certainly a success.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Planet of the Apes (1968) vs. Planet of the Apes (2001)

For Spectrum Culture's Re-Make/Re-Model series, I have tried to discuss remakes with artistic credibility in their own right, to show that not every retread is simply a lazy cash-in on an established property. I wanted to find any such merit in Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, which I had not seen since its release when I was 12. But man, was it worth all the disdain I had for the movie even as a tween. Where the original film combines several major subtexts (white slavery panic, nuclear holocaust fears) into solid, simple high-concept film, Burton's has no central point to make, content to just monkey around, as it were. It's a shame, as the production design and prosthetic work are so wonderful that, stylistically, this blows the recent reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes out of the water. But even that inconsistently plotted movie comes off as a classic next to Burton's movie.

My full piece is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Prince: Prince (1979)

So much of Prince's eponymous sophomore effort can be summarized by its hysterical cover. Where For You functioned as primarily a disco record, Prince fit more into the funk mold. The move from a hot and current genre to the (relatively) old-fashioned sound that helped spawned it is matched by the change from For You's blurry, flashy cover to the almost-pastel colored photograph that adorns Prince. Featuring a visibly bored Prince standing with his shirt off, the album art suggests Prince at once in his own skin (figuratively stripped down from disco to funk and literally stripped down to a bare chest) and uncomfortably and artificially donning an image in the fierce hunt for success.

That contradiction holds back Prince's second LP, but the fact that Prince is at least somewhat at home with the material marks a step up from his debut. It still sounds more like For You than Dirty Mind, but Prince shows its maker starting to consolidate his early sound into something more focused, capable of setting trends instead of merely following them. Hell, even as Prince starts to distance itself from disco, it does disco better than For You, managing to give even single-length numbers the elasticity and bounce of extended dance mixes and just having groove in the first place, an element sorely lacking from so much of the first album.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Dragon Eyes (John Hyams, 2012)

If there is any justice in this world, John Hyams will not have to suffer in his direct-to-DVD or VOD-first-release purgatory for much longer. Dragon Eyes, which creeped onto VOD without fanfare earlier this year, lacks the same physical and emotional grace as Hyams' last film, Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Made in-between that film and its upcoming sequel (due on VOD in October, though with a theatrical release of some sort(!) planned later), Dragon Eyes feels altogether rougher around the edges, with more brutish direction, stodgier writing and a few flashy visual gimmicks that Hyams himself says were not his doing.

Even so, Hyams' filler is a high-concept piece, a loose retelling of Yojimbo set among American gangs that trades samurai skills for MMA combat. MMA fighter Cung Le stars as Hong, a mysterious individual who shows up in the gang-run town of St. Jude and promptly begins kicking everyone's ass until he manages to anger even the corrupt police chief who controls everything, Mr. V (Peter Weller). Flashbacks to Hong's training in prison under mentor Tiano (Jean-Claude Van Damme) break up Hong's rampages with martial arts philosophizing, and a few extra kicks for good measure. Other flashbacks providing Hong's backstory manage to be even more clichéd, mostly silent interludes that gradually piece together what sent the man to jail in the first place.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Universal Soldier: Regeneration (John Hyams, 2010)

John Hyams' Universal Soldier: Regeneration, the third official installment of the Universal Soldier series and fifth overall, was released ignominiously direct-to-video in the United States and Europe and got only the softest theatrical release anywhere else. Yet this quietly dumped sequel to a long-forgotten franchise, made for a paltry $14 million, displays a better grasp of 1980s action filmmaking and more visceral pleasure than just about anything to come out of America in a long, long time. And even if it did not meet this level of quality, how many direct-to-DVD cash-ins also contain credible aesthetic and thematic nods to John Carpenter and Blade Runner?

Opening starkly on a young woman's face as Hyams' camera gently glides with her through a museum, Universal Soldier: Regeneration has just enough time to recall John Carpenter with its 'Scope-framed tracking shot before the rug gets pulled out from under the film and all hell breaks loose. As this girl and her brother, the children of Russia's prime minister, head out with their escort to return home, a reinforced SUV pulls out of nowhere and slams into their vehicle, killing a bodyguard as armed terrorists leap out and abduct the children. An ensuing car chase is an object lesson in how to start an action film: all chaotic but carefully ordered cuts of traded machine gunfire and sudden swerves as civilian cars suddenly stumbling into this fracas cause problems for police and abductor alike and require swift visual recalibration to deal with these new objects.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, 2006)

I have not seen Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke in five years, and in that time I had not only forgotten what a superb documentary it is, but also how profoundly I was affected by Hurricane Katrina. Rage and sorrow run through Lee's film, their purest outlet in his filmography since Do the Right Thing. But Lee also focuses his emotional response to the gargantuan blunder by interviewing such a wide variety of people that blame is cross-examined, shifted around, and finally rendered both unclear and sharply honed. One of Lee's finest works, if not his best.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Premium Rush (David Koepp, 2012)

David Koepp's Premium Rush feels like the first posthumous tribute to the work of the late Tony Scott. Unintentional, of course, but beneficial for those of us already missing the British director and wondering if anyone could match, much less exceed, his approach to action filmmaking. Koepp certainly cannot top Scott, but for a time, but it appears he picked up a thing or two while doing uncredited rewrites for The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Stylistically, Premium Rush feels like a throwback to Enemy of the State-era Scott, with its constant zooms in and out of satellite views of New York City as a GPS plots courses for the bike messengers on whom the film focuses. Narratively, though, it calls to mind Scott's fondness for regularly making epic the banal occupations of working-class stiffs. In bike couriers, Koepp nearly manages to surpass Scott in choice of subject. Not only are these men and women paid wretchedly for grueling work, they may be the most hated group in New York City, foe to pedestrian and driver alike.

Premium Rush gets off to a great start, following reckless, brake-less rider Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) barreling nonstop through traffic-gnarled streets as he casually gets into phoned arguments with his girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez, also playing a bike messenger), pissing matches with ripped colleague Manny (Wolé Parks) and trying to get more work (and cash) from his flippant boss (Aasif Mandvi). Like Scott, Koepp casually employs a multiracial cast not for the sake of commentary but merely as a reflection of an increasingly diverse America. And like Scott, Koepp wastes no time introducing the central, driving conflict, embodied in this case by Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a crooked cop who attempts to intercept a letter entrusted to Wilee by a friend (Jamie Chung) in order to pay off some gambling debts he owes to Chinese mobsters.