Showing posts with label Blind Spots. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Blind Spots. Show all posts

May 27, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Is there anyone who can sell genuine romanticism better than Ewan McGregor? Even when he plays criminals, you get the sense that he’s an okay guy who just followed the wrong path. He can also deliver lines that would sound cheesy in another’s hands with enough passion to convince us the emotions are real. His feelings sit at the heart of Moulin Rouge! and present Baz Luhrmann’s stylized visions with the right charm. Christian is a broke writer with few prospects, yet he’s convinced that the star performer Satine (Nicole Kidman) is the love of his life. A mistaken identity gives him the chance to meet her, and his mind is set. Their romance occurs within the exciting backdrop of the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre at the turn of the century. The sheltered guy falls in love with Satine and the entire cabaret, and his heart is set on making both a permanent part of his life.

Nominated for eight Oscars and adored by many, Moulin Rouge! is perfect for inclusion in the Blind Spots series. It’s only the second Luhrmann film that I’ve seen after Romeo & Juliet and is one of the more significant musicals of this century. I only knew the basics going in and was surprised by the mayhem of its first half hour. When Christian observes the performance of Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and his Diamond Dog Dancers, I was right with him in being amazed. Luhrmann uses all his tricks to energize the renditions of “Lady Marmalade”, a rap from Zidler, and even “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The famous Nirvana song was a surprise because it rarely appears in other works. In a strange way, the “here we are now/entertain us” chorus fits well in this theatrical environment.

The opening scene makes it clear that the events are fantasy. We begin in a theater with an orchestra playing as a film begins. The transition into the movie world is a clever device that’s handled well. This is a classic tale of love, death, and heartbreak with plenty of melodrama. It’s filled with over-the-top performances and flashy production numbers, yet it rarely is too much. Luhrmann’s a divisive filmmaker with plenty of devoted fans and haters, and I haven’t seen enough to make an assessment. I admire his audacity with this film to go for broke and not play it safe. There’s nothing subtle about this film, but that’s by design and is present throughout his work. Movies that assault the senses often don’t work for me, but there are exceptions when an original filmmaker is running the show. If you aren’t on board right away, it’s not going to work for you.

The use of well-known modern songs is tricky because they call attention to themselves. When characters sing “Rhythm of the Night”, “Diamond Dogs”, or “Like a Virgin”, we’re thinking as much about the song as the events on screen. Thankfully, the familiar choices add to the sense of fun of the entire production. While some of the choices are really on the nose, others like “Roxanne” and “Children of the Revolution” heighten the impact of the scenes. The Police tune is delivered by the raspy voice of Jacek Koman and combined with the tango song “Tanguera” to deliver a show-stopping number. The prominent original song is “Come What May”, which becomes the love theme of Christian and Satine. It’s a solid track, though it falls more into the conventional musical format than most of the others.

Moulin Rouge! is a stunning film, but it loses some momentum during its middle act. When we dig further into the love story and less into the show, the conventional side takes over. Richard Roxburgh is too much as the evil Duke on Monroth. He’s such a mustache-twirling villain that it’s hard to take anything he does seriously. I’m certain his persona is intentional and fits the mood that Luhrmann is trying to set, but it feels out of place. Jim Broadbent is so convincing as Zidler that it feels uneven when the Duke is threatening him.

What keeps the momentum on track is the fine work from McGregor and Kidman. I haven’t enjoyed much of her work in recent years, but she’s the right choice to play Satine. The other saving grace is the musical performances, which remain engaging and keep the story rolling to its grand end. I’m hardly an expert on the genre, but I keep finding strong examples that make me question if I should be digging further. I’m also more intrigued by Luhrmann, especially his recent adaption of The Great Gatsby. The best blind spot films send you on a quest to catch related works, and Moulin Rouge! is no exception. It’s not for everyone but deserves more attention from cinephiles like me who’ve avoided it. When you have that much artistry and energy on display, you can join the chorus or leap off the ship. This time, I was ready to stay on board and had a great time right to the end.

April 28, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: The King of Comedy (1982)

When you’re engaged by any piece of pop culture, it’s easy to become obsessed by celebrity. Instead of recognizing the value of the art, we focus on the artist and put that person on a pedestal. Admiring what they do is one thing, but treating them like a god loses sight of the accomplishment. This trend has only grown easier with the Internet, and recent films like Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring show how the lines of what’s acceptable get blurry. This is hardly a new conversation, however. Paul D. Zimmerman wrote the script for The King of Comedy in the late ‘60s during his time as a film critic for Newsweek. When Martin Scorsese’s film was released in 1982, audiences largely stayed away from the subversive look at our celebrity culture. Even so, its reputation has grown because it remains so timely today. In fact, it’s probably more relevant now than it was 30 years ago.

It’s easy to look at Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) as just a crazy loner. That would be too simple, however. It’s more interesting to dig into the mindset that sets up Jerry Langford (Jerry Lee Lewis) as the perfect star. Rupert fails to recognize that there’s no magic bullet to break into the industry. It’s spelled out repeatedly that he should start at the bottom and work up towards his goals. This is a guy who doesn’t understand the social cues that present a denial without rejecting him mercilessly. When a person walks away from you with a trivial excuse, the conversation is over. Rupert only sees the end goal and forgets the charisma and legwork that’s needed to reach it. There are plenty of funny people who’ve never moved beyond cracking jokes for their friends. Honing mediocre one liners and having a vivid imagination only get you so far in this nasty business.

Scorsese presents a New York City filled with star-crazed obsessiveness who do nothing but follow celebrities. The most harrowing moment is Jerry’s brief walk to his office where he’s accosted for autographs, told to “get cancer!” by an initially friendly woman, and tailed by a stalker (Sandra Bernhard). This is hardly the tourist-friendly New York that’s been sold in recent years. The crowds battle each other viciously to get even a moment with Jerry after his show. He lives an isolated life in fear and wants nothing to do with the public, yet their desire for him never ceases. Pupkin embodies the need to be Jerry, while Bernhard’s Marsha wants to possess him. This is the dark side of the glitzy Hollywood dream to become famous. It may look like fun and games, but these exalted figures must retreat to gated communities and rarely set foot in the normal world to survive.

What makes Rupert so chilling is the way that he convinces himself that he’s made a connection with Jerry. He becomes a staple in the office reception area and even shows up uninvited at his house. People initially fall for this charade, including an old high school friend Rita (Diahnne Abbott). He isn’t your typical loser who walks around with his head facing the ground. Rupert has created a persona of a winner that refuses to admit that he’s not ready to take the world by storm. It’s only within his comedy monologue that he’s able to admit his past demons. Shot in a single shot, his routine is brutally self-deprecating and offers a glimpse at the darkness hidden behind the smile. Rupert spends every waking hour convincing himself the world is his oyster. He dreams with cardboard cutouts and imaginary friends like Jerry, and that masks an inability to accept reality.

There’s a connection between Rupert and De Niro’s Travis Bickle, but it’s too easy to draw a direct line. This guy has been influenced by television, and it’s exacerbated his unfortunate tendencies. He thinks that his way out of the muck is becoming a star, but this culture makes him worse. Scorsese frequently depicts broken men who are lost within normal society, and we see that interest with his collaborations with De Niro during this time period. In his dinner with Rita, Rupert clutches his autograph book like a beloved child. It’s his life’s work, and he doesn’t see anything strange about it. He isn’t even interested in Rita for sex; she’s just a prop in his vision of a world where he’s the king.

The King of Comedy ends with a sequence that shows the ways that Rupert has become a celebrity. His book is a best seller, and his brazen attempts to get a slot on Jerry’s show have given him the fame he desired. The question is whether it’s actually happening. My initial thought was to read it as the ultimate satire on the vapid celebrity world. The guy with limited talent gets famous by going against the social norms of the business. That’s one way to read it, but it’s more likely another dream sequence for Rupert while sitting in jail. The narrator’s repeated lines of “Rupert Pupkin, ladies and gentlemen!” feel strange and something out of a distorted vision of reality. The earlier moments with Rupert imagining conversations with Jerry connect perfectly to this final sequence. This is the only way this story can end in his dreams, but the truth is probably very different.

March 25, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: The Battle of Algiers (1966)

We’ve come a long way as a society, but we haven't outgrown violent conflict. Wars and threats of military force are used frequently to settle disputes, and we can look at the recent situation in the Ukraine for a timely example. When you add that to situations in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other places, it’s a pretty scary time. Of course, this is hardly a new circumstance. It will take quite a leap for us to reach Star Trek territory and work together to further mankind. War films often make for interesting cinema, particularly when they stray from the obvious drama. When done well, they can provide a gripping take on the bleakest situations from our history. One of the most acclaimed examples is Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, which arrived a short time after the struggle between Algerian guerrillas and the occupying French forces. Released in 1966, it documents that eight-year fight that began in 1954 and resulted in Algerian independence eight years later.

One of the main reasons for this Blind Spots Series is to strong arm me into checking out movies I’d avoided for a long time. On the surface, a presentation of the Algerian conflict with mostly non-professional actors and limited dialogue sounds like a challenging viewing. Once again, my one-dimensional assumptions were proven wrong by this riveting film. The story is based on the book Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alge by Saadi Yacef, who was a leader of the National Liberation Front (FLN) that opposed the French government. He appears in this picture in a similar role, and we receive an insider’s look at the workings of those fighters. Even so, it’s hardly a one-sided take on these events. The FLN uses brutal tactics that have little concern for innocent victims within the slaughter. Both sides keep escalating what they’ll do, and this unfortunate cycle only leads to more destruction.

A remarkable sequence takes us step by step through the preparations by three women for bombing attacks in public areas. We observe them building disguises, receiving instructions, and venturing into crowded areas to unleash death against the French. The tense scenes include few words yet say plenty about what’s going to happen. The attackers sit in a crowded establishment and observe women and children among the innocents that are minutes from their end. It’s a stunning look at how far the conflict has escalated following a bombing from the soldiers that killed Algerian families. The suspense recalls a lengthy scene from Hitchcock’s Sabotage with a bomb set to go off at any minute. Both examples don’t overdo the intensity, and Pontecorvo’s languid pace makes it even more effective.

The first hour focuses on the FLN as they step up and start removing their oppressors. They function like the heroes of a patriotic film like Red Dawn or The Patriot, yet they’re committing murder. This film gives us a chance to understand why they act without endorsing it as the right solution. The narrative shift comes with the arrival of Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), a determined military man determined to squash the rebellion. He lives by a code of honor but won’t allow chaos to continue in the streets. Mathieu’s systematic approach to taking out the FLN changes the tide. Even so, there’s only so much anyone can do when the people demand change. The images of crowds hitting the streets to gain their independence feel similar to the recent documentary The Square about Egypt. All of this has happened before, and it will happen again. The cycle of war and upheaval is harder to understand here in the States, but it’s a common trend around the world. This story gives insight into the challenges facing any nation under foreign rule.

The Battle of Algiers received notoriety in 2003 when it was screened at the Pentagon for input on the conflict in Iraq. It’s interesting because Pontecorvo avoids making stark political statements about the reasons for the war. We learn that the French use torture and other violent methods to maintain control, and it’s clear that the Italian filmmaker has sympathies with the Algerian people. Even so, there are enough complexities to allow for diverse interpretations of the events. Anti-war viewers may find both sides at fault for using such ruthless methods. The rebels ultimately achieve victory and gain independence, but it happens years after the shutdown of their revolution. This raises questions about whether that battle really drove the push for independence in the long run. It’s these layers that make this film one of the most essential depictions of war in movie history.

February 25, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Yojimbo (1961)

Toshiro Mifune is a ronin taking on a divided town in Yojimbo.

The situation is very familiar. A mysterious loner enters a town in the midst of a power struggle between two warring factions. Through cunning trickery and killings when necessary, he sets the gangs against each other and creates mayhem for his personal gain. He ends up connecting with some villagers and shows that he’s not a heartless mercenary. This scenario has worked brilliantly in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and fell on its face in Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing. Where did this story come from, you ask? Although its original source varies, the movie answer is Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This 1961 film stars the legendary Toshiro Mifune as a ronin who stirs the pot in a divided town. It’s been on my watch list for a long time and is the perfect choice for the Blind Spots series. The widely heralded movie is highly influential and uses devices that remain prevalent in today’s cinema.

A battle is about to ensue in Akira Kurosawa's 1961 film Yojimbo.

The ronin enters the stage with the swagger of a guy who knows the ways of the world. He asks a farmer for water, and the older man recognizes that trouble is on the horizon. We see the bloodlust in his son, who wants easy money without working for it. The kid doesn’t know any better, but it’s all bluster for him. The ronin doesn’t need to convince people he’s for real. It just takes a stare and a sword at his side. He kills a few guys and even slices off another’s arm, and that’s all for show to eliminate any doubts. Mifune conveys the deliberate approach of a thinker who treats the others like pawns in a chess game. He sits back and only speaks when it’s absolutely necessary, and that gives the impression he’s quite a force. Of course, he may be over playing his hand and could be heading for a ruinous finish.

Yojimbo is my ninth Kurosawa film, so I still have a long way to go. His movies sneak up on you with a deliberate pace to set the stage. This story includes plenty of action, yet it takes its time in showing the various parties within the town. The forces of Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka) seem ready to keep the peace, yet it only takes a few nudges to get them back to fighting. The ronin finds himself in the right place to learn key information and then sneaks over to the other side to make the best use of it. Kurosawa’s camera moves slowly around the town to keep us aware of the double crosses in the works. It’s a subtle, effective way to reveal the ronin’s plans without extra dialogue.

A shot from Akira Kurosawa's 1961 film Yojimbo.

Why does this simple formula work so well? It helps to have a master filmmaker behind the scenes, but that’s hardly the only reason. We’re aligned with a guy who kills without remorse and seems to care little for anyone, yet he’s our entry point into this universe. When the vicious henchman Unosoke (Tatsuya Nakadai) captures the ronin and has him tortured, we’re still pulling for the guy against all odds. One reason is his genuine move to save a young couple and their son who are caught in the middle of the mess. Another is the callous nature of virtually everyone in this town. It’s not like the ronin is taking out virtuous people who’ve just gone astray. They’re too far down the road to come back to the light.

From a moral perspective, Yojimbo essentially shows a descent into hell for evil killers who will do anything to succeed. Once the chaos begins, the stakes keep rising until almost no one is left. The ronin serves as the angel of death who arrives to punish them for veering so far into wicked deeds. He may start out hoping for commercial gains, but those disappear by the final act. When he gives the money to the couple and sets them free, it’s a move away from sin while accepting that more will come. Mifune’s weary face shows us that he’s done his own share of terrible deeds. The ronin’s punishment is wandering the earth alone like John Wayne in The Searchers. He may have saved this world from these evil men, but more penance is needed before he gains any peace.

Other Kurosawa Reviews

High and Low

January 28, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Martin Landau and Angelica Huston in Crimes and Misdemeanors

Woody Allen lives on an island apart from the rest of the movie world. He avoids the Oscars and other awards shows like the plague, and his films rarely do well at the box office. His movies show up every year like clockwork and include some of our most talented actors. Allen’s directed 43 features in the past 48 years, and it’s easy to take that consistency for granted. I’ve seen 30 of those films, which makes the omission of one of his most heralded movies a surprise. Released in 1989, Crimes and Misdemeanors earned three Oscar nominations, including Best Director. It’s the perfect first choice for my 2014 Blind Spots Series because it’s been on my watch list for so long. Arriving during a string of Allen dramas, it retains his trademark style yet feels different from much of his work. The laughs are undercut by guilt and remorse over a very questionable choice. Allen’s digging into questions of life and death that permeate his films but rarely strike such an emotional chord.

Martin Landau stars as Judah Rosenthal, a successful ophthalmologist who’s been married to his wife Miriam (Claire Bloom) for 25 years. He’s also been having an affair with Dolores (Anjelica Huston) for the past two. She’s had enough of his empty promises and will do anything she can to make Judah commit. This is not a wise move. Trapped into a corner and unwilling to give up his respectable life, he enlists his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) to fix the situation. We also follow Cliff Stern (Allen)  — a struggling filmmaker in a fading marriage. When he gets a rare chance to shoot a PBS documentary about his wife’s brother Lester (Alan Alda), he may have a shot to change the game. That’s assuming that Cliff really cares about success. He’s more interested in wooing a producer Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), who may not be interested in joining up with a guy with limited career prospects.

The title and main story focus on Judah, but we spend quite a bit of time following Cliff. This raises the anticipation that the two leads will cross paths in a major way. Allen enjoys subverting expectations, so the duo only meets briefly during a scene at the end. He’s connecting them more thematically than with the plot. His wife’s other brother Ben (Sam Waterston) is a rabbi who counsels Judah about his predicament, but that’s the only real connection. It’s easy to look at Cliff’s story and wonder why it’s even in the movie. I’m relieved that it exists, though. Allen is charming in his typical role of a director who’s mostly interested in his documentary about a philosopher. Lester is a self-centered idiot, but he’s also a major player. Cliff would rather go to the movies with his niece than focus on his career, and that’s a refreshing contrast to Judah’s inability to step away from his safe life.

The highlight of Crimes and Misdemeanors is watching Martin Landau shine in a tricky role. He makes us sympathize with Judah because we’re seeing Dolores from his perspective. She’s a loose cannon who’s going to demolish his life at any moment. Even so, it’s clear that Judah has gotten in over his head and bears a lot of blame for the affair. He’s gone too far down the road and has only two choices. Telling Miriam would decimate their family, but the other choice is even nastier. The further Judah goes down that road, the harder it is to stay on his side. When he visits Dolores' apartment after the act is done, it seems like an act of self-sabotage. On the other hand, he’s also working to ensure its success. Following the obvious path of Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment, we’re waiting for Judah’s guilt to ensnare him and send him to prison. Allen plays with those expectations and shows that some people can overcome that voice inside their head telling them about right and wrong.

There’s a fascinating scene following the crime of Judah returning to his childhood home and reliving a family dinner. What’s great is the way he interacts with those characters, particularly his very religious father. This feels straight out of an Ingmar Bergman film, particularly Wild Strawberries, and does an excellent job in showing Judah’s thought process. He’s fighting a battle inside his soul and must push aside the guilt or risk losing everything. There’s little conflict for Cliff, who creates a ridiculous cut of the film about Lester that compares him to Mussolini. He’s ready to focus on Halley, who’s a kindred spirit yet may have other options in mind. Despite the disconnected lead stories, Allen is working at the top of his game with Crimes and Misdemeanors. It’s a human tale that keeps you engaged right to the end, and the fine work from the entire cast plays a major role. It’s more subtle than the similar Match Point and makes each choice from the leads utterly believable. Allen’s style fits very well inside a crime story, and it ranks among some of his best work.

December 30, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series: Millennium Actress (2001)

Millennium Actress, directed by Satoshi Kon

We’ve all faced split-second decisions that can drastically change our lives. If we aren’t careful, those choices can haunt our dreams and cripple our current progress. A crush becomes an obsession, and the pursuit of regaining a magical moment is rarely wise. Romantic comedies may teach us that a happy ending is on the way, but it’s just a movie. This unending search is at the heart of Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, which provides a much-different approach to the biopic. The animation shows us flashbacks that connect with the present and the movie world. The 70-year-old Chiyoko Fujiwara (Miyoko Shôji) spends her adult life trying to find a painter she met for just a short time. This quest sidetracks her film career and eventually sends her into seclusion. While recounting her past for the TV journalist Genya Tachibana (Shôzô Iizuka), she creates a world that mixes reality with fiction and sends them on a remarkable emotional journey.

Millennium Actress, released in 2001

The question hanging over this story is how much clarity is needed to keep us engaged. For much of this film, it isn’t clear whether we’re seeing a film shoot, real life, or something new. Genya and his camera man Kyoji Ida (Masaya Onosaka) often appear within these visions and further complicate our understanding. They’re hardly innocent bystanders, and Genya frequently saves Chiyoko from dangerous forces. It’s a brilliant way to present her emotional state in her younger days, but the disorientation is tricky for viewers. If we’re willing to take the ride and follow the story to its tragic end, getting accustomed to this style isn’t so difficult. Animation is the perfect format for this original take since anything can happen. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, our memories of the past can be a destructive force. They’re haunting and painful images that still make an impact many years later.

Chiyoko’s memories are unlocked by a mysterious key that brings a supernatural feeling. I wouldn’t read it that simply, though. Instead, it’s her connection with this device that opens the locks into her brain about the past. Genya’s arrival plays a role given his surprise participation in her actual life. This revelation changes our impression of his appearances in the earlier sequences. Genya’s role as a protector has morphed into something more universal throughout her memories. It’s tricky to delve too much into her psychology because the facts are so minimal. The gut punch is the reveal about the painter who’s dominated so much of Chiyoko’s thoughts. This brings a new layer of tragedy to the entire experience despite the energy on screen. Another recurring image is a fortune teller who predicts her unfortunate fate. This force seems to be an external villain watching everything, but the truth may be closer to Chiyoko herself. This menace connects with her personal self-sabotage and reminds us that the futile search won’t lead to happy results.

Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress

Millennium Actress is the type of movie that’s going to lose some viewers in its first half hour. Unlike Kon’s equally confounding Paprika, it provides some revelations that clarify what we’ve observed. The question of what’s actually happening slips away by the end. Kon provides enough information to keep the story from becoming pure chaos, and that’s the key factor in its success. I’ll admit to being lost in the early going, but the striking animation and narrative energy kept my interest. It’s an intriguing experiment that only grows in your mind with each passing day. The creative animation gives Kon’s vision a chance to shine in a way that wouldn’t be possible through live action. He’s doing more than showing pretty images and is delving into emotional worlds that we rarely see on screen.

This post concludes my 2013 Blind Spots series, which focused on cult films from The A.V. Club's New Cult Canon. I’ll be continuing this series next year with choices voted on by readers. Click here to check out the 12 blind spots chosen for 2014. I can’t wait to get started with this remarkable group.

December 2, 2013

Announcing the 2014 Blind Spots Series

When I decided to ask readers for input on my 2014 Blind Spots Series picks, I never expected to receive so many great responses. The 50 possible films all deserve to be seen, and the 30 entries spread out the votes pretty evenly. Only one choice, John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, did not receive a vote. The leading movie only appeared on 14 ballots. The 30 entries on this site, Letterboxd, and Twitter have created a diverse group of intriguing selections. The 12 films come from around the world and cross six decades. I'm thrilled to check out all of these picks and can't wait to get started in January.

Here is the official list of movies that I'll be tackling next year:

The Battle of Algiers
Brokeback Mountain
Crimes and Misdemeanors
The King of Comedy
Les Diaboliques
Moulin Rouge!
My Neighbor Totoro
Night of the Living Dead
Rosemary's Baby
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Wages of Fear

One of the most exciting parts of this group is catching up with three horror classics (Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary's Baby, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). My background in that area is limited, and it's not my favorite genre. Even so, I owe it to myself to push against this resistance and check out some of the seminal works. Another positive is seeing acclaimed pictures from legendary directors like Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Hayao Miyazaki, and Roman Polanski. Even a lesser-known film like The King of Comedy has plenty of admirers and deserves my attention. Another choice that I need to see is The Battle of Algiers, considered one of the most innovative war movies. It's quite a diverse group and should give me plenty to write about each month. 

Beyond these 12 films, I'm planning to check out many of the 50 choices that I listed for the voting. These group will set the framework for the marathons that I tackle during 2014. Just missing the final cut were Nights of Cabiria, Suspiria, Safety Last!, and Pierrot le fou. These and plenty more should get checked off my watch list during the upcoming year. With partners like Turner Classic Movies and my local libraries, there are numerous ways to discover classic films. It's never possible to catch up with everything, and interesting new releases are arriving each month. Projects like this one help me to stay focused, and I appreciate the input from intelligent film lovers to make this happen.

What do you think of my 2014 Blind Spots? 

November 26, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series - Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

When Robert Picardo looks back on his career, I expect the highlight won’t be getting romanced by a Gremlin in a wedding dress. He joins Christopher Lee, John Glover, and returning stars Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates for one of the most ridiculous sequels ever made. How did Gremlins 2 get a $50 million budget? It’s become a cult film, which makes it a good choice for this year’s Blind Spots Series. Joe Dante resisted the offers to return to the franchise, which made huge sums of money with its original film in 1984. When he changed his mind six years later, the movie world was different. Audiences didn’t have the same interest in Gizmo and the creatures that spawn from this Mogwai. Don’t let him have water! No eating after midnight! These are the basic rules to keep the nasty Gremlins from arriving. Once they start taking over the massive building, no one is safe from their mayhem.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

First of all, I have a confession to make: I’ve never seen the original Gremlins. It would have freaked me out as an eight-year-old, and I just didn’t get around to seeing it after that point. Even so, I’ve caught parts on TV and understand the basic premise. Produced on an $11 budget, it earned a huge box office yet was also criticized for stretching the limits of the PG rating. These objections played a role in the introduction of the PG-13 option, and its sequel received that rating. The creatures present an odd mix of cute aspects from a kids’ movie thrown into a blender with horror genre elements. It’s a tricky balance that found a large audience in 1984, but the sillier follow-up didn’t make a dent. Does it deserve more credit? There are numerous references to movies and pop culture, but that isn’t enough to carry a film. When the characters and plot are so thin, it becomes a total lark. In a sense, Dante tricked the studio and created a daring experiment with little chance to succeed.

The story mostly takes place at Clamp Enterprises, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the empire of Donald Trump. Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) works there as a designer, and his fiancée Katie (Phoebe Cates) is a tour guide. Clamp’s namesake is the arrogant Daniel Clamp (John Glover), who oversees everything and maintains a god-like status. His research department ends up with Gizmo, the kind Mogwai from the first movie. When Billy rescues Gizmo, it sets off a chain reaction that sends the entire office into chaos. If the Gremlins escape the building, they could spread into the city and be unstoppable. This description may hint at tense sequences or some thrills, but that’s hardly the case. Dante and Writer Charles S. Haas develop a limited plot but don’t really care about making it work. It’s just the framework to set up the mayhem.

Hulk Hogan in Gremlins 2

There are some clever gags that bring a laugh, including having Leonard Maltin present his negative review of the first movie and then get eaten by Gremlins. The most unique gag has the monsters taking over the movie theater and stopping the film. It takes an impassioned speech from the imposing Hulk Hogan to get the story on track and allow the movie to finish. The original video release also had an alternate version with the Gremlins taking over the VCR. John Wayne was the savior in that case. Like many of the film’s gags, they’re clever but pretty obvious. Dante makes everything so manic that it loses much of its edge. The violence is cartoonish and even has a Gremlin getting destroyed in a paper shredder. They’re still pretty grisly enemies, but the menace goes away pretty quickly. Gremlins are genetically modified into spiders and other different creatures, and one even becomes smart. Tony Randall voices the leader, and he brings some rare wit to that character.

Gremlins 2 lives in the world of Howard the Duck and Super Mario Bros. as a head-scratching major studio release. It’s slightly better than those train wrecks and has some charm, but it’s a pretty terrible movie. Galligan and Cates are stilted as the leads, and even the great Christopher Lee gets little to do as Dr. Catheter. His character name says all you need to know about this movie’s humor level. I can’t compare it directly to the original, but I expect that it slides pretty far down the scale. Dante followed up his Gremlins success with Explorers, which offered a ridiculous ending that included aliens obsessed with American television. His segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie was a creepy take on Warner Brothers cartoons, and those characters open up this film. He loves self-referential humor, but his storytelling skills leave something to be desired. Gremlins 2 pummels you with these in-jokes and doesn’t provide enough other elements to make it work. It’s an interesting mess with some fun scenes, but they aren’t enough to avoid inconsistent results.

November 20, 2013

Make Your Selections for My 2014 Blind Spots Series!

One of my favorite parts of the film community is the monthly Blind Spots series, which pushes movie lovers out of their comfort zones. We all have films that have sat on our watch list for years, yet they never make it to the top of the pile. This plan forces us to commit to watching 12 of these films and writing about them. Back in 2012, I chose highly regarded classics like Wild Strawberries and Once Upon a Time in the West, and it was a great experience. This year, I tried something different and focused on lesser-known cult films like Morvern Callar and The Fall. It’s time to prepare for 2014, and I’m enlisting your help to choose the new slate. Which movies deserve my attention as soon as possible?

Honestly, this method is hardly a novel one. I’ve stolen borrowed the approach that Ryan McNeil at The Matinee took to choose his 2013 blind spots. He enlisted readers to provide their top selections from a larger group of films that he hadn’t seen. I can’t think of a better way to take advantage of others’ expertise. Therefore, I require your assistance on this important mission. I can’t make this project work unless you’re on board to guide this ship in the right direction. Can I count on you? It’s easy to dig into a specific book or critic’s list, but I’d rather find out which choices have stuck with readers.

I’ve created a list on Letterboxd that includes 50 possibilities for this series. I’m tasking you with checking it out and then choosing 12 movies from that group that stand out as the most essential. This list includes both prestige films and genre pictures from around the world, so the results should create a diverse group. Once you’ve made your choices, leave a comment on this blog (or on Letterboxd) with your selections. After compiling the choices during the upcoming weeks, I’ll have 12 picks to watch and analyze in 2014. If you aren’t able to pick 12, it’s fine to provide a shorter list. The key factor is getting enough responses to develop a strong list. Whether you’re a regular visitor to this site or have just arrived, your input is pivotal to this project.

Are you ready to guide my 2014 movie watching? Let’s do this!

November 4, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series - Series 7: The Contenders (2001)

Brooke Smith in Series 7: The Contenders

In case it isn't obvious already, I'm a big Survivor viewer. My fandom began with the second season in Australia and has only increased lately. The show was a "social experiment" that stranded regular Americans and gave them few resources. It's morphed into more of a strategic game with added twists, but the core elements remain. After the gargantuan success, it was easy to decry TV's demise. Today, there are countless reality TV shows that venture into crazier territory. It isn't a huge stretch to take the next step towards watching contestants battle to the death. This is hardly a new concept, though. The Running Man portrayed an over-the-top game show, but it was more of a Schwarzenegger vehicle than social commentary. My latest cult film for the Blind Spots Series tackles a similar topic. Series 7: The Contenders arrived in 2001 and took dead aim at our obsession with becoming celebrities. The Highlander-like battle to the death is shown to the public despite the real stakes on display. There's no Redemption Island for the losers in this game.

Merritt Weaver in Series 7: The Contenders

Brooke Smith stars as Dawn, the two-time returning champion who’s racked up kills in pursuit of her freedom. The trick is that she’s eight months pregnant. This game takes her back to her hometown of Newbury, Connecticut to battle locals chosen by a lottery. The contestants are a diverse group ranging between the 18-year-old Lindsay (Merritt Wever) and retired 72-year-old Franklin (Richard Venture). It might seem random, but that’s hard to believe when Dawn’s former boyfriend Jeffrey (Glenn Fitzgerald) is chosen. Throughout the competition, hints arise that it’s hardly fair. The announcer (Will Arnett) lies about what’s happening, and recreations hardly match the reality. It’s a game with no apparent rules, but shady figures lurk around every corner to ensure the manufactured drama happens. When anyone tries to shatter the illusion, they’re smacked down with brutal efficiency.

Writer/director Daniel Minahan (Game of Thrones) sets his sights on reality TV and shows how producers manipulate the action. He uses the violent satire to take shots at a genre that was just taking off in 2001. Survivor had just premiered the previous May in the U.S., but it had already taken off in other countries. The cavalier attitude towards death also indicts our own fascination with violent TV and movies. Minahan uses the novel approach of only presenting what’s seen on the show. There’s no behind-the-scenes footage that captures what’s happening away from the camera. It feels similar to the structure of a series and cuts just when the big moments are about to happen. The final showdown occurs in the season finale, and there should be little doubts about which two contestants will be there.

Marylouise Burke in Series 7: The Contenders

Although it uses a novel approach, Series 7 has some pacing issues and is limited by its subject. Like any reality competition, the main question is which person will go next. The first act drags a bit as Dawn stalks each player to prove her dominance. She seems like the obvious villain, so it’s an interesting turnaround when she becomes the lead. The supporting cast includes one-note character types, and Dawn’s clearly the most engaging person on screen. Anthony (Michael Kaycheck) and Connie (Marylouise Burke) are the worst offenders and basically caricatures. His family drama is ridiculous and resembles a really bad sitcom. Minaham is playing the scenario for laughs, so these characters are purposely thin. Even so, it makes it less exciting to spend time with them. Smith plays Dawn straight, so it’s easier to stay engaged with her once the mayhem ensues.

Series 7 is pretty light satire, but the unconventional approach keeps it enjoyable. Along with reality shows of the time, Minahan’s referencing '70s dystopian films like Rollerball. The world looks just like our own, which fits with his budget and keeps it from moving too far into the sci-fi genre. The idea is that we’re only a few steps away from reaching this grim immorality. A recent connection is The Hunger Games, which puts this battle on a different scale in a future world. That competition is created by the government to control an unruly populace. The goal in this story seems purely commercial and designed to draw the largest ratings. Still, the show exists outside society’s laws and allows its competitors to do anything. Are we really that close to killing each other? The contestants don’t volunteer for this game, but they don’t seem conflicted about joining it. The most religious contestant is the nastiest enemy, and the champion with the most blood on her hands still has a heart. It’s those complexities that keep the story from being a single-minded satire. An outlandish high-school video for "Love Will Tear Us Apart" doesn't hurt either. The premise strikes a chord as our world continues to descend into violence and disorder.

September 25, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series: Morvern Callar (2002)

Lynne Ramsey earned great acclaim as the writer and director of We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2011. It was her third feature and reminded us that she was poised for big things. The surprise is that it arrived nine years after her second film. The Scottish filmmaker received a lot of attention for 2002's Morvern Callar, which documents the tumultuous journey of a young woman following her boyfriend's suicide. It was ranked by the A.V. Club as one of the best films from the '00s along with being part of Scott Tobias' New Cult Canon. This makes it the perfect choice for this year's Blind Spots Series. It's a challenging film that lacks a clear path yet includes a stunning lead performance from Samantha Morton. It isn't as well known as other indies from the time period yet exudes a similar tone.

Morton's Morvern Callar is a tricky character to admire because we aren't clear on what she's thinking. Morton embodies this confusion within her as she drifts between raucous behavior and motionless silence. Her uneven response is understandable when you consider the trauma she's endured. How would any of us react to waking up next to our dead lover? Morvern's been knocked loose from a stable reality, and she may never return to a normal life. Amazingly, she leaves her boyfriend's body on the floor and doesn't mess with it for days. This isn't an evil move; she's struggling to deal with this horrifying situation. The body reminds Morvern of what she's lost, but disposing of this burden is hardly an easy task.

Ramsey's camera stays close to Morton's face and tries to figure out what's going on inside her soul. She stands nearly motionless at a dance club while craziness reigns around her. Morvern takes drugs, attends wild parties with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott), and doesn't want the music to stop. When she finally takes the time to dispose of the body, it's a clinical exercise that's handled with brutal efficiency. She becomes a different person and shows little emotion as she cuts up her boyfriend in the bathtub. Her morality seems even murkier when Morvern takes her boyfriend's unpublished novel as her own. While meeting with the publishers, she's trying to play a character and failing miserably. Still, her lack of pretense and uncomfortable nature sell the masquerade. Morton effectively shows both the charm and the nastiness inside Morvern's character. She's best pals with Lanna and then treats her like a non-entity. It's hard to say if these emotional issues were there before the suicide, but they've reached new heights after the trauma.

One of the best aspects of Morvern Callar is the use of music, which sells Morvern's disconnected life. Songs from Can, Aphex Twin, The Mamas and the Papas, and others keep the energy rolling even when the story meanders. The second half becomes a road movie with Morvern and Lanna heading to Barcelona. Their interactions with shady guys at the resort feel a bit like Spring Breakers without the same menace. The men that she meets for random sex have little personality and are just tools. There's little direction to Morvern's journey, and that rambling nature is matched by the movie. Ramsey is more concerned with her main character's psyche than presenting a narrative. The final shots of Morvern staring into the camera with little expression is the perfect representation of that approach. She's still here and living her life, but there's little remedy for the demons lurking in her memory.

August 28, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series: Black Dynamite (2009)

Michael Jai White in Black Dynamite

Creating an effective movie spoof is tricky business. For every success like Airplane!, you have painful misses like Meet the Spartans and the many Scary Movie sequels. The challenge is finding a way to pile on the jokes while retaining a semblance of a real plot. A good example is Top Secret!, which is ridiculous yet still has a spy story that moves along. Black Dynamite joined the fray in 2009 and quickly became a cult hit. It made little money at the box office yet has found a devoted audience since that time. It’s the most recent entry in this year’s Blind Spots Series on cult films. This fact is a testament to the excitement generated among a certain type of movie viewer. Following in the footsteps of Keenan Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, this Scott Sanders film takes aim at the Blaxploitation genre. It’s an easy genre to satirize because of its consistent devices, but that almost makes it harder. If everyone knows the tropes, how can you do anything original? Sanders and star Michael Jai White (Spawn) dive head first into this project and leave nothing on the field. While some jokes are too obvious, they still find a way to create an inspired comedy.

Mykelti Williamson in Black Dynamite

White also co-wrote the movie, and it’s clear that he’s fully invested in making it work. Black Dynamite is in nearly every scene, and this story fails without a convincing lead performance. He exudes the ridiculous confidence that makes women swoon and guys join him in standing up to The Man. White isn’t a very expressive actor, but he needs little to sell the purposely one-note guy. The flashbacks to his past in Vietnam and at the orphanage are great fun and ridicule the need to explain his motivations. His anger at drugs being sold in the orphanage is a highlight, particularly when the kids start flying out the window. Whether he’s laughing maniacally on board a helicopter or mourning his pal while parachuting to the White House, White finds the right blend of silliness and over-the-top conviction. He doesn’t need to wink at the camera because the material does the work for him.

The story has Black Dynamite (that’s basically his first name) returning to get revenge when his brother is murdered. The hordes of villains are no match for his Kung fu skills, and he dispatches them with few issues. A parade of familiar faces like Arsenio Hall, Tommy Davidson, Mykelti Williamson, Bokeem Woodbine, and others depict the outlandish dealers and associates that run the city. The trail of goofy characters moves so quickly that it’s hard to catch them all. There are many attractive women for Black Dynamite to seduce, but only one really draws his attention. Nicole Ari Parker plays the militant Mahogany Black, who dismisses his usual pick-up lines but can only reject him for so long. No one can truly resist Black Dynamite. She’s also a standard type from this genre and fits right into this world.

Black Dynamite, directed by Scott Sanders

Analyzing a movie like Black Dynamite is tricky because the silliness is so high. It really comes down to whether the humor works for you. I enjoyed the pace, which moves rapidly and perfectly grasps the feeling of a Blaxploitation film. The colors and setting are convincing even while the zaniness is happening. Every joke doesn't land, and some are pretty standard. Still, it’s impossible not to like a movie that ends with Richard Nixon having a nunchuck battle with Black Dynamite. White is so genuine that it’s hard not to get drawn into the fun. It’s filled with over-the-top scenes and clever gags that stick with you for a long time. It isn’t for all tastes, but movie fans should enjoy the kind-hearted spoof. The filmmakers love the genre and can’t help but show that enthusiasm in the final product.

July 31, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series: Irma Vep (1996)

Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep

Maggie Cheung has enjoyed a diverse film career with many high points, but it’s hard to argue with the indelible image of her acting in a black leather cat suit. Her filmography includes remarkable parts in Wong Kar Wai classics like In the Mood for Love and 2046 along with memorable roles in Hero and Chinese Box. She’s known as more of a quiet actress, and her part in Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep might seem like a departure. Cheung plays a character of the same name who’s starring in a French silent film based on Les Vampires. While she’s clad in the striking outfit, it’s the isolation of her character that takes center stage. Her lack of proficiency in French makes it difficult to communicate, and the standoffish director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) offers his own set of challenges. This intriguing picture is the latest entry in my Blind Spots series, which is focusing on cult films this year. The 1996 film depicts the chaos of a movie set, especially in a world far from mainstream cinema.

Jean-Pierre Léaud in Irma Vep

While Maggie’s story is the focus, she also serves as our entry point into this fictional take on French cinema. The grumpy cast and crew snipe at each other and get little enjoyment out of making a movie. The director is angered that everyone doesn’t share his vision and takes it out on the resentful crew. Assayas (Carlos, Summer Hours) takes aim at the pretentions of modern French directors, but it’s hardly just a takedown of high-minded filmmakers. The journalist who decries this trend of self-absorbed films to Maggie cites Arnold Schwarzenegger as a counter point. It’s clear that Assayas isn’t presenting overblown commercial films as the best route. He’s pushing for originality without slipping into artistic chaos. René seems like an idiot who doesn’t understand the audience, but his passion seems charming when compared to the grump who replaces him. That slimy guy has no energy and lumbers through his job like he’d rather be doing anything else. He’s the polar opposite of René yet shares the lack of attention on the viewer.

An extended scene has Maggie catching a ride with the costume designer Zoe (Nathalie Richard) and hanging out with her friends. They share stories and laughs, and the camaraderie is much different than the atmosphere on the set. Maggie doesn’t understand many of the conversations in French, but there’s a casual feeling to this party that keeps her comfortable. Zoe’s clearly attracted to her, yet there’s a distance between Maggie and her new friend. She’s a stranger in a new country, and this approach to cinema differs from her experience making action films. Even so, it’s inspiring to her despite the cultural obstacles. René is criticized frequently, particularly after his breakdown. Maggie’s one of the few to defend him, and she doesn’t mind the lofty ambitions of this remake. It feels like a strange choice to re-do, especially when he decides to shoot it again as a silent film. The criticisms aren’t entirely wrong, though he still does enough to draw in the new arrival.

Irma Vep, directed by Olivier Assayas and starring Maggie Cheung

Irma Vep's pivotal sequence has Maggie donning the cat suit away from work and stealing jewelry. This moment feels like a dream, and Assayas makes us question what we’re seeing. Maggie is turned on by wearing the outfit, and fantasy and reality mix in this confounding scene. Did she really commit a crime? Assayas won’t give us an easy solution, and that’s hardly the point. It shows the way that Maggie’s being seduced by this intellectual world despite its flaws. René pushes to create something new, and that excites her even with the flaws. She becomes a disciple and is comfortable wearing the outfit while her co-stars struggle with it. The plot grows a bit meandering, yet Cheung never strikes a false note. We’re connected with her even when her behavior gets erratic. She grounds the story and makes it more than a biting portrayal of the French movie world.

June 25, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series: Battle Royale (2000)

Battle Royale, released in 2000

What makes a society violent? Are humans by nature prone to harm each other, or does the situation determine our fate? Would any of us resort to brutal killings if forced to do so? These questions have risen frequently in this country after prominent recent examples of gun-related violence. The debate centers on whether we’re truly safer to have so many guns inside our homes. My opinions fall strongly in favor of gun control, but I’ve leave that discussion for another time. What I’m getting at is the concept of what makes a community kill each other. If inner-city schools had better funding and provided a stronger environment, teens might stop fighting and do better. However, that’s far from a sure thing. The world of Battle Royale shows us an extreme version of this type of dire scenario. Students have given up on civilized education and walked out of school. In a sense, they’ve proven that adults don’t have control if enough of them revolt. Most parents recognize this fact, but few expect 800,000 students to leave. In this film, the government decides to fight back and show the students who’s really in control. They’ve responded to their gesture by taking it a step further and enacting a new severe type of authority. It doesn’t matter whether the victims are innocent of this crime. All high-school students must pay for that insolence, and only one from the selected class will survive this ordeal.

Takeshi Kitano in Battle Royale

Battle Royale is a fantasy but has roots in Director Kinji Fukasaku’s traumatic experiences during World War II. His distrust of adults and their authority sits at the heart of this film. The tricky part is that he seems to enjoy presenting the grisly deaths. It’s hardly a clinical look at violence and functions as a survivalist action film. The subversive entertainment of watching 9th-grade students kill each other takes the story into murky territory. It relishes in showing the inventive kills and functions similar to a slasher film. While identifying with the leads who are trying to survive, we’re seeing brutal deaths constantly. Tarantino loves this film, and it’s easy to see the connection between the violence and his latest movie Django Unchained. It showed the ugly nature of slavery, but it also entertained as a revenge fantasy with outlandish deaths. These contradictions make the films intriguing but also put them in shaky moral territory. If we enjoy watching teenagers kill each other, does that indict us as an inhumane society? This is the challenge in evaluating this movie, which uses a novel premise and sharp direction to deliver a thrilling experience. It’s only when the carnage goes away that the questions appear about what makes this so enjoyable.

Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda star as Shuya and Noriko, friends who vow to stick together. There’s a possible romantic link between them, and they try to avoid conflict if they can. They’re set up as the heroes who won’t resort to brutality once the fight begins. Their entire class of 42 students was knocked out by gas and sent to a remote island. After watching a ridiculous video where an upbeat presenter talks happily after killing, they’re sent packing with a random weapon. The army leader is their former teacher Kitano (Director Takeshi Kitano), who’s still smarting after being stabbed by a former student. When a girl whispers too much, he throws a knife and kills her. This removes any thought that he’s a spineless teacher. This guy means business. Adding to the challenge are collars that will cause a bloody death if anyone gets out of line. The brazen Yoshitoki (Yukihiro Kotani) learns this the hard way and faces Kitano’s wrath for the stabbing. The frightened students rush out into the wilderness, and chaos quickly takes over for even the least imposing teens.

Battle Royale, directed by Kinji Fukasaku

Much has been written about the connections between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, and it’s hard to know how much Suzanne Collins was inspired by this film and the Koushun Takami novel. She claims to have had no knowledge when she wrote it, but there are many similarities. The movies feel very different, however. Gary Ross focused on the lead and used quick cuts to avoid the violence. Fukasaku revels in the killings and doesn’t try to develop the combatants. There are deaths by a sickle, guns, knives, and poison, plus multiple suicides. They aren’t playing to the same audience, despite having similar themes. The cynical feeling about the government resounds strongly in both works. Ross is taking a commercial approach, and he succeeds in creating an entertaining blockbuster. This film works more for a cult audience yet has strong moments. The acting is mostly forgettable and filled with stock characters when you go beyond the leads. Kô Shibasaki makes an impression as Mitsuko, a cruel girl who definitely enjoys this environment. She kills without remorse and takes delight in tormenting her classmates.

Right from the start, it's pretty clear which students are most likely to survive. Fukasaku isn't setting up a mystery and focuses instead on ratcheting up the intensity with each kill. Text on the screen describes who's perished in clinical fashion and treats the deaths like a sports game. The eliminations can happen quickly and without warning. One group of girls seems to be having a great time in a lighthouse, and minutes later they're all dead. The "transfer student" Kiriyama (Masanobu Andô) takes out a lot of students without saying a word. He's an extra factor that should make it difficult for groups to skip the violence. The challenge is to avoid numbing the audience as the body count rises. We receive a thin back story that explains Mistuko's reasons for being crazy, but it feels too obvious. The lack of character development puts us at a distance from many of the killings. Even so, there's still plenty to like with Battle Royale. It's a gutsy film that's sure to turn off many yet still provides a visceral experience. It remains a striking movie that can surprise even the most hardened viewer. It's not going to change your views, but there's enough material to leave us considering the complicated role of violence in cinema.  

May 27, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series: Mr. Brooks (2007)

Kevin Costner in Mr. Brooks

When I prepared the selections for this year's Blind Spots Series, I decided to avoid the "classics" and go in a different direction. Using Scott Tobias' New Cult Canon as a guide, the list includes offbeat films that have developed a cult following. This has led to some compelling movies, although they might not fit the standard definition of a true blind spot. The prime example is Mr. Brooks, the serial-killer drama that drew mixed reactions from critics and audiences. The idea of straight-arrow Kevin Costner playing against type was enough to make it interesting. Having William Hurt play his alter ego was just icing on the cake. This film actually did pretty well at the box office due to the star power, but it's largely disappeared from the movie world. Does it deserve more attention as a hidden gem? Director Bruce A. Evans definitely believes in the story and hoped to make a trilogy about these characters. While the modest success didn't allow for more films, it's clear that the material struck a chord with the director and star.

William Hurt and Kevin Costner in Mr. Brooks

Costner has appeared in only eight features in the past 10 years, and these choices have avoided the leading-man persona of his prime. The 55-year-old actor is poised to return to the spotlight with Man of Steel and Jack Ryan this year, but he’s clearly stepped back in the last decade. One of his more unique roles is the title character of Mr. Brooks. This character study is mostly a low-key affair, though its high concept is easy to describe. I can hear the booming trailer voice now: “He seems like an average guy, but he’s REALLY a serial killer!” This set-up fails to do justice to this peculiar film. Costner mostly plays it straight as an addict who can’t stop killing. He even visits a support group at a church, and those meetings help him to stay clean for two years. Hurt wonderfully chews scenery as the devil on his shoulder pushing Brooks to return to his murderous ways. The two acting veterans play off each other wonderfully and even mimic the other’s facial expressions at times. When they share a maniacal laugh, it’s creepy but has its share of silliness.

Bruce A. Evans’ other film as a director is the forgettable 1991 Christian Slater star vehicle Kuffs. Along with his writing partner Raynold Gideon, he has penned the screenplays for Stand by Me and Starman. Of course, they also played a role in developing Cutthroat Island. Their script for Mr. Brooks walks a fine line between utter seriousness and pure chaos. A sense of foreboding rests over every scene, and the shocking moments are well-played. Even so, the story veers into side plots that distract us from the main premise. All we really need is to watch Costner and Hurt drive around Portland and talk about killing people. The divorce proceedings of Detective Atwood (Demi Moore) are a distraction and receive far too much weight. While they eventually connect to Brooks, it feels unnecessary for such a focused affair. The plot gets rolling after Brooks falls off the wagon and kills a couple having sex. He’s an extremely careful guy and is known as the “Thumbprint Killer” from his many past deeds. This time, he’s out of practice and leaves the curtains open. Entering the picture is the voyeur Mr. Smith (Dane Cook), and he wants something much different than money. Hidden behind some grizzled facial hair, Cook plays it straight and is a convincing dummy. He’s clearly out of his element dealing with Brooks and fails to realize his opponent’s intelligence. Their battle of wills is one-sided and headed for a predictable outcome.

Danielle Panabaker in Mr. Brooks

An interesting subplot involves Brooks’ daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker), who drops out of college under suspicious circumstances. Does she share her father’s urges? The sequels would likely have focused more on her character. In this case, the ambiguity works because she isn’t the center point of this film. Brooks steps across a dangerous line to help Jane, and even his nasty alter ego isn’t ready to back that plan. Hurt brilliantly shows the different sides to even that part of his personality, and he steals the film. Costner plays Brooks as such a dull guy that he’s definitely hiding a different side. His controlled acting style has been more frequent in recent years. It’s hard to imagine the star of Bull Durham being this sedate. Jane shares her father’s manipulative personality, and both rarely speak without thinking of the consequences. Marg Helgenberger gets little to do as Brooks’ wife Emma, but she’s definitely the nice one in the family. Regardless of whether she shares his demons, Jane already is learning how to spin a clever tale.

There’s something strangely clinical about Mr. Brooks that keeps us at an arm’s length from the characters. It’s a trashy premise and includes its share of blood, but it doesn’t truly embrace this tone. The A-list stars and production values keep it glossy even when the action gets nasty. There’s plenty to like in this film, however, particularly the performances from Hurt and Costner. Moore is also surprisingly convincing as Atwood, but she gets the short end of the excitement. The subplot with an escaped convict trying to get revenge against her seems way out of place, especially during a manic shootout near the end. Also, the two-hour running time is unnecessary for such a contained story. It gives the characters room to breathe yet also sends them on tangential detours. The result is an intriguing film with a sharp premise that struggles to stick the landing. It’s great to see Costner trying something different, and that makes for a memorable film.

April 29, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series: Road House (1989)

Patrick Swayze in Road House

The 1980s is the master class of cheesy action films where grand champions like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger made their name. In silly movies like Cobra, Commando, and others, these guys killed their enemies without a second thought and wowed audiences. While those and many more deserve consideration, there’s another movie that stands apart from the fray. Released in 1989, Rowdy Herrington’s Road House brings the Western to the modern era in outlandish fashion. It combines the big hair, excessive nudity, and goofy dialogue that epitomized the ‘80s. Unlike many of its contemporaries, this movie continues to draw viewers and has become a cult favorite. I didn’t feel that my life as a cinephile would be complete without checking out this seminal film. It’s the perfect choice for the Blind Spots series and knocks out a gaping hole in my movie background.

Ben Gazzara in Road House

Patrick Swayze stars as Dalton, a “cooler” who runs the show at a fancy New York City night club. When a shady-looking owner (Kevin Tighe) offers him a job fixing up his Double Deuce club in Jasper, Missouri, Dalton hops in his BMW and takes the opportunity. He doesn’t realize that this small town is under the thumb of the vicious Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara). That power-hungry guy controls the local businesses and isn’t happy to see this newcomer stepping up against him. When Dalton’s attempts to clean up the bar start infringing on his people, Wesley starts a bloody war against him. Meanwhile, the hero begins a relationship with “Doc” Clay (Kelly Lynch) and gets more connected to the area. He may have a PHD in Philosophy and a stoic demeanor, but Dalton is battling demons from his past. This nasty side threatens to come out as the conflict with Wesley escalates. He may claim that “pain don’t hurt”, but you don’t want to mess with this tai-chi master.

Road House is impossible to evaluate because it’s so damn ridiculous, yet strangely earnest at the same time. It’s easy to criticize its hokey dialogue, generic plot, and over-the-top villain, but that disregards the fun within the mess. When Dalton utters statements like “I want you to be nice until it's time to not be nice”, there’s an odd charm to its simplicity. He's basically a samurai who’d prefer to talk philosophy and not fight. However, you don’t want to get on the bad side of a guy who can rip out your throat with his bare hands. When Dalton finally decides to take on Wesley directly, the wimpy villain has no chance. The Double Deuce is one of those “only in the movies” locations where giant fights break out for no reason. The Jeff Healey Band (with the singer playing the role of “Cody”) performs behind a protective screen and keeps rocking while the mayhem ensues. When a bar has wrestler Terry Funk as its bouncer, how can it not be a rough establishment? It takes a guy like Dalton to bring back the hundreds of locals who want to dance the night away.

Sam Elliott in Road House

Although it definitely lives in 1989, this film is really just a Western transported to modern times. Wesley is essentially a scenery-chewing cattle baron who wants to dominate a frontier town. He lives on a lavish estate protected by brutes who can’t think for themselves. Dalton is the outsider who arrives to clean up a place descending into chaos. He’s trying to help the common folk and isn’t afraid to step outside the law. The women are basically treated as prostitutes, and the action centers around the saloon in the middle of town. Character names like Garrett and Doc connect directly to the genre myths of the past. When Dalton calls in his mentor Wade Garrett to help out, he’s played by the great Sam Elliott as a grizzled loner. Wesley controls the system and has all the power, and only a few special guys can stand up to him. These elements connect to the old-school Westerns, but it’s hardly a revisionist take. Instead, Herrington (Striking Distance) plays it straight and sticks with the expected tropes. The script from David Lee Henry (Out for Justice) and Hillary Henkin (Wag the Dog) has a few clever touches, but it's hardly a drastic change. When it shifts into dark territory in the final act, it’s jarring but fits with the genre.

I have to mention the treatment of women in this movie, which is just terrible. Most are just hanging out at the Double Deuce and waiting to start stripping. The worst example is Denise (Julie Michaels), who’s Wesley’s girl but makes a pass at Dalton. She ends up getting brutalized by his thugs yet sticks around. There’s an odd scene where she decides to strip on stage and then exits the film. While the beaten-down villain's moll is hardly a new character type, she’s on the screen solely for her looks. This was Michaels’ first role, and it’s interesting that she’s found a career as a stunt woman along with acting. The one exception with the women is Kelly Lynch as Doc, who has a career apart from her connection to Dalton. Even so, she’s reduced to a plot device pulling him back to town. This isn’t the type of movie to expect deep characters, so I don’t mean to be too critical. Even so, this movie is definitely above the norm in its nastiness, even for the late ‘80s.

Kelly Lynch and Patrick Swayze in Road House

The big question in looking at Swayze’s lead performance is whether he’s in on the joke. He plays Dalton so straight that you start wondering if he realizes it’s such a goofy premise. His mullet is one of the great hairdos in movie history, and his finishing move is legendary. He also delivers a glare than can knock over tall buildings when the lesser beings are challenging his worth. Elliott definitely understands that he’s working with some silly material. He makes Garrett a larger-than-life character who storms into town to save his buddy from overwhelming odds. Elliott’s having a blast and energizes his scenes when playing off the serious lead. On the other hand, Ben Gazzara goes too far in making Wesley a thin bad guy. He’s a dummy playing with toys who’s no real match for Dalton without his army. Even so, this type of stock villain is probably the right choice for this movie. He doesn’t steal the thunder from Swayze and is just around to drive Dalton to new levels of badass behavior.

Road House is one of those unique movies where most responses will fall into the opposing poles. It’s loved by a cult of devotees but is dismissed as a stupid action relic by others. I enjoyed watching it yet fall right in the middle of the spectrum. There are moments that make me wonder how they ever were part of a mainstream production. It’s this bizarre material that separates the movie from stock action movies of Seagal and Van Damme that would follow. When you have the hero living in a spare house right across the river from the bad guy’s palace, we’re living in obvious territory. This lack of subtlety keeps the movie entertaining and has drawn in lots of fans over the years. I’m not completely ready to jump on the band wagon, but it’s definitely memorable. This type of movie is exactly what I was trying to see when picking cult films for this year's Blind Spots series.

March 26, 2013

2013 Blind Spots Series: The Fall (2006)

The Fall, directed by Tarsem

Tarsem Singh made his name directing music videos, most notably for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”. That song played a key role in pushing the band to greater heights and showcased Tarsem's unique film making approach. Nine years later, his 2000 debut The Cell received very mixed reviews but had a stunning visual style. The Indian director finally returned to the screen with The Fall six years later. Shot in fantastic places all over the world, this film was partially finished by Tarsem himself. A remake of the 1981 film Yo ho ho, it has an original look that’s hard to duplicate. Although it didn’t generate huge receipts at the box office, it felt like the perfect choice for this year’s Blind Spots Series. I’m seeking out ambitious ventures from bold artists who aren’t willing to stick to the formula. Although they don’t always succeed, these visionaries are taking a shot at greatness.

Lee Pace in Tarsem's The Fall

Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) stars as Roy Walker, a movie stuntman brutally injured during a daring jump. The sad event costs him his girlfriend, and the bitter guy has nearly lost all hope. He strikes up a friendship with Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a young girl recovering in the hospital from a broken arm. They develop a warm bond, and he tells her stories about Alexander the Great and five heroes seeking revenge against a vicious ruler. She grows enamored with his tale, but he’s looking for an ally to help with a less noble deed. Although their friendship is real, Roy uses that connection to bring him closer to his wishes for death. The innocent girl still wants to assist him, which could lead to tragic consequences.

The Fall really takes off when we enter the fantasy world of Alexandria’s mind while Roy creates the fictional tales. The grand and colorful locations feel like CGI but were actually shot in physical sites. This isn’t The Phantom Menace, and it shows when the actors move through the scenery. Along with recognizable spots like the Taj Mahal and the Charles Bridge in Prague, Tarsem shoots in incredible settings like the Jantar Matar in Jaipur and the Chand Baori stepwell in Abaneri. The events are almost secondary to the unreal images on the screen. It’s a convincing depiction of childhood imagination that feels so alive. When the five heroes make their daring attempts to take out Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone), the battles feel epic because of the huge scope of the landmarks. It’s one of the most impressive visual spectacles that I’ve seen, and it would still work with no dialogue.

The Fall, directed by Tarsem Singh

There’s a stark contrast between these creative scenes and the bleak setting of the Los Angeles hospital. Filmed at the Valkenberg Hospital in Cape Town, the location grounds the story and reminds us that the real world isn’t such a kind place. Roy deftly manipulates Alexandria with his clever stories while keeping an eye on his ultimate goal. His despair when the suicide doesn’t work is jarring because we’ve grown accustomed to the fanciful setting. When his hopes go downhill, the tone becomes darker and shifts towards a dramatic tragedy. His characters are dealing with lost love and death, and thoughts of a grand adventure quickly go out the window. Roy enforces his will on Alexandria’s visions and turns them into something very different. When he starts killing off the characters, it’s devastating to watch her bright façade crumble. She’s very young and has a child’s excitement about life, but he’s quickly educating her that we can’t live in a happy fantasy.

The challenge with The Fall is sticking with the deliberate pace. We spend a lot of time in the hospital learning about Roy’s issues. Tarsem must find a way to keep our interest when we’re not inside Roy’s stories. Those sequences are exciting, particularly when Alexandria inserts herself into the proceedings. The tonal changes don’t completely fit together, which brings an inconsistency to the overall film. Even so, it’s hard to complain about Tarsem’s massive ambitions for this undertaking. It’s worth checking out for the visual style, and there’s enough in Roy and Alexandria’s characters to keep us interested. Pace brings weight to Roy’s struggles, and she lacks the awkwardness of most child actors. Their connection makes this film about more than the visuals and worth a recommendation.