Showing posts with label 2015. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2015. Show all posts

April 28, 2017

Bone Tomahawk Review (S. Craig Zahler)

Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins star in Bone Tomahawk.

It’s no secret that the Old West is not a hospitable place. Outlaws roam the countryside, and there are constant dangers for “civilized” folk. Even so, movies and TV series have given us a romanticized vision of the frontier. There are villains to face, but there are also the wonders of the open land! I’m speaking in general terms of course. Modern revisionist westerns like John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada have depicted a much darker side of frontier life.

Joining this established band is S. Craig Zahler’s debut film Bone Tomahawk, a brutal genre mash-up with little optimism in sight. Released in 2015, the grisly story often veers into straight-up horror with a Western backdrop. This grim outlook is evident from the very first shot of a robber cutting his victim’s throat. It’s hardly the quick slice of your typical action film either. This act is vicious, bloody, and seems like it lasts for an eternity. Zahler presents a mission statement for his worldview right at the start. This is an unforgiving, nasty world.

This opening scene also reveals monsters that lurk behind the scenes and overwhelm the typical brigand. They kill without warning and have no regard for who’s on the other end of the arrows they shoot. The change-up in this prologue sets the stage for frequent surprises from Zahler, who rose to prominence as a writer after the success of his novel A Congregation of Jackals. He frequently avoids the expected beats, particularly with the dramatic shift in this film’s third act.

Before we reach those twists, a less confident set-up introduces the main characters in the town. It feels like Zahler just wants to blitz through this section and move back into the wild. We meet the grizzled Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his drunk deputy Chicory (a nearly unrecognizable Richard Jenkins). There’s also the cute young couple Arthur (Patrick Wilson) and Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons). The town’s citizens include head-scratching cameos from Sean Young and Fred Melamed, who disappear once you realize they've arrived. Matthew Fox also shows up as the well-dressed gunslinger Brooder.

These scenes feel like a throwback to classic Westerns, but not always in a good way. We meet the film's lone African-American character, and he’s immediately killed in a brutal fashion. Zahler introduces Samantha as a strong woman with medical knowledge and a confident attitude. Sadly, she’s quickly abducted by the unseen monsters that we saw at the start. A scene where Hunt questions and quickly shoots a suspicious guy plays out strangely and like a rehash of better scenes in other films.

Before continuing, I’d like to take a moment and discuss the two couples in Bone Tomahawk. More specifically, the age gaps between the actors involved are unsettling (though predictable). Russell is 66 years old, and Hunt’s wife Lorna is played by Kathryn Morris (48). She only appears briefly, yet it’s still a noticeable gap. Wilson is 43 and 20 years older than Simmons (23). I’m calling this out because it’s so normal. It would be more surprising if Lorna was actually played by an actress in her 60s.

Thankfully, the early scenes are merely a set-up for the moment when Hunt, Chicory, Arthur, and Brooder set out to rescue Samantha and another settler. Zahler’s direction and writing immediately feel more confident in this setting. The pace remains deliberate, but it’s easy to spend time with these actors. Russell and Jenkins are sharp as expected, and Fox surprises in a role that is more nuanced than I expected. Wilson has a challenging role of hobbling around behind the others, but he injects Arthur with a determination that’s easy to respect.

What sets this story apart from a typical Western is the way Zahler depicts the enemies. They’re often called “savages” and would be Native Americans in a lesser film. Instead, the troglodytes feel like a mix between people and sub-human animals. An eerie whistle signifies their impending arrival, and there’s no way to stop them. This sound plays a larger role because of the lack of a typical score in this film. We’re out there with the characters and helpless to save them. The slow capture of Hunt and Chicory is horrifying because it’s so slow and unstoppable.

Zahler takes a slow-burn approach, which gives us time to understand the characters. It also helps to increase the tension, particularly when intruders unexpectedly appear. There's little of the openness you might expect from a trip into the wilderness. Instead, Zahler builds a claustrophobic feeling that only increases as the guys draw closer to the troglodytes. The payoff is mostly worth the time, though it still feels a little padded at 132 minutes. The long journey obviously recalls John Ford's The Searchers, though the final destination is quite different.

There’s one moment that pushes Bone Tomahawk into a different realm, and no one will forget it. The violence is so over-the-top that it’s nearly laughable, but it doesn’t move into camp. Shot in close-up, Russell’s face reveals a horror that drags us back into reality. The workmanlike way that the cannibalistic troglodytes execute their jobs adds to the queasy feeling. There are no clever quips or mustache twirling to let us off the hook. We’re stuck inside that cage with Hunt. It’s an inconsistent but incisive debut from Zahler, who’s a filmmaker to watch. Working with a limited budget, he creates a vivid world that’s safe for no one, including the audience.

Bone Tomahawk is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Squeamish viewers should look elsewhere.

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October 23, 2016

Mustang Review (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)

Deniz Gamze Ergüven's film Mustang tells a warm story of five sisters in northern Turkey.

Mustang and Escaping the Cultural Status Quo

If anything positive has come out of our current election cycle, it’s been opening the door to unspoken problems. In particular, pervasive institutional sexism is now discussed freely. Donald Trump is not an outlier and symbolizes systemic behavior. The individuals are at fault but act with the approval of a much larger group. This fact stands at the core of Mustang, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s frank look at constraining social constructs. Viewed through the eyes of five young sisters, the sexism that drives a northern Turkey community is laid bare.

Released in late 2015, Mustang tells a specific tale but with plenty to say. I have two young girls and don’t plan to weld bars to our windows, yet the story reminds me to be wary of small daily gestures. In this film, everyday propaganda on the radio proclaims that feminists “refuse motherhood”. What should be a lively home becomes a dour “wife factory” to help maintain the status quo. Men like the domineering Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) will do anything to maintain power.

Imprisoning the sisters early ensures continuation of trends that work in men’s favor. A culture of fear extends to the older women, who present the girls to other families like items at an auction. Women like the grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) understand the problems but don’t know anything else. It’s easy to fall into familiar patterns and just accept them.

What pushes the girls into captivity is innocent frolicking with boys in the water. There’s nothing scandalous, and the bad result shows the lack of agency for young women. This scene also confirms the adults' pre-existing suspicions. They subconsciously wait for a chance to subvert the next generation. The grandmother is abusive in public, but her society encourages that behavior. Erol’s actions cross another line and treat the girls as subhuman. Subjecting them to a “virginity report” treats their sexuality as a prize he can sell. They’re worth nothing to the community without their purity.

Despite the confinement, the sisters’ world remains a place of wonder for a while. Ergüven presents nature outside as bright and inviting. Shots of the five girls intertwined together reveal their power with each other. It’s a sharp contrast from a similar scene at a funeral late in the film that is far less empowering. No matter what the town enforces, there’s still beauty there. Scenes with adults locking away the phone, computer, and other modern devices lack that serenity. The camera totally avoids showing the grown-ups’ faces during this scene. No individual is making this happen; it’s a collective fear of female sexuality and power that drives it.

Mustang is not a tale of rebellious teens wrecking their lives. Most bad behavior comes directly from captivity. When Ece (Elit Iscan) has sex with a stranger in town, it’s because she’s lost her will. Her chosen fate afterwards reinforces the dangers of trapping the girls. The marriage meetings are horrifying examples of their lack of power. The grandmother is a tool of the patriarchy to maintain control. With each successive event, the cruelty of this fate becomes clearer. The men then arrive and “settle the matter” like a real-estate transaction. Even when a girl marries for love like Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), it’s barely under her control.

The football match is the last joyful interlude for the five sisters. Their efforts to escape for a few hours of fun resemble a prison break. The beaming face of Lale (Günes Sensoy) reminds us of how innocent their lives should be. The close-up shot of the girls dancing shows how the game doesn’t matter. We don’t even see the game; it’s all about freedom. By stifling their childhood, the adults create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The match’s aftermath reminds us that the older women are not dim followers. The aunt’s silly efforts to cut the power and avoid discovery are helpful. The problem is how rare they are. She buys the girls a fun day but little else.

The centerpiece is Lale, who has no interest in following her sisters’ footsteps. Her efforts to prepare the escape keep the story proactive. Even when bad things happen, there’s hope that Lale might avoid them. Günes Sensoy makes it easy to root for her; there’s no way she’ll take it. Lale’s friendship with Yasin (Burak Yigit) is a rare connection away from the house. He’s in his 20s but isn’t the problem, which shows a little hope for the future. Yasin lends a helping hand, but Lale makes it happen.

Mustang’s conclusion works because of its simplicity. There’s no way to know how they’ll fare, but the most important thing is escape. Lale deserves better, even if it comes in a mysterious city. There are real options beyond a forced marriage in this free community. The finale still feels a little sad, however. The adults will not change after one setback. Circling back to the political climate, will the current discussions lead to real progress? We’re a long way from major change, but it’s a step in the right direction. Accepting the status quo is the worst solution.

Mustang is currently streaming on Netflix and available on DVD and Blu-ray. 

January 21, 2015

Investigating Michael Mann: Blackhat

Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang flee the scene in Blackhat.
Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) and Chen Lien (Wei Tang) run for their lives in Michael Mann's Blackhat.

The long-awaited return of Michael Mann has finally arrived six years after Public Enemies. The question is whether anyone but devoted fans (including this writer) still cares about the 71-year-old filmmaker. Mann has been a pioneer for digital cinema and created a specific look that stands apart from the glossier style of the average modern movie. His films deserve attention, especially from viewers interested in the action genre. Blackhat was hardly a surefire prospect facing off with Oscar contenders in January, but it does feature Thor star Chris Hemsworth. It’s perfect counter programming to more serious winter fare, but audiences mostly stayed away. My Monday screening just included me and an elderly couple, which is low for a first-week release even on a slower night. Was the dismal box-office performance justified?

Critical reactions to Blackhat have been all over the map, and so much of its success depends on your interest in Mann’s work. It conveys his distinctive skills in several incredible sequences that rank among the best action scenes of his career. On the other hand, it’s strangely inconsistent and suffers because of an unconvincing Hemsworth and limited character depth. The challenge in discussing this film is deciding what drives your enjoyment. Are the odd, less-than-stellar moments enough to kill any interest? They didn’t ruin my night. In a world of middle-of-the-road blockbusters, Mann delivers an ambitious tale that piles on the plot and takes real chances visually. During Hollywood’s lower period in January, it’s refreshing to return to Mann’s cool world.

Hemsworth stars as Nick Hathaway, a skilled computer expert serving 13 years in prison for illegal activities. When a mysterious hacker initiates a meltdown in a Chai Wan nuclear plant, Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) enlists his former college roommate for help in exchange for his freedom if the culprit is caught. Dawai and Hathaway wrote the code used for both the nuclear disaster and an artificial spike in soy prices. U.S. Agent Carol Burnett (Viola Davis) joins Dawai and Hathaway to try and bring down this modern menace. Joining the fun is Dawai’s sister Chen Lien (Wei Tang), who predictably falls for Hathaway. The messy operation rushes to prevent the next attack, but the authorities’ primary concern is not the success of the operation.

The highlights of Blackhat are two action sequences that rank among the best of Mann's career.

Pure Adrenaline

Spending too much time discussing plot feels inconsequential, especially once the bullets start flying. Blackhat doesn’t have non-stop action, but the two major set pieces are worth the wait. The first is the frenetic pursuit of the hacker’s number one henchman Kassar (Ritchie Coster, Luck). Stuart Dryburgh’s camera scrambles behind the agents as they rapidly pursue the enemy, and it’s a visceral thrill. The camera shakes dramatically and places us on top of them when all hell breaks loose. The sharp contrast between Kassar’s deliberate moves to set the trap and his opponents’ frantic approach is startling. It’s a brilliantly staged sequence that should be difficult to top this year. Kassar’s men stand in shallow water near stone pillars while agents pursue them from multiple locations. Dwai and the Hong Kong police appear to have a tactical advantage, but it means little against such a formidable adversary. This surely isn’t Kassar’s first shootout.

Equally impressive is the second battle, which begins with an unexpected car explosion. It happens in the dark of night and resembles the best moments from Mann’s Miami Vice. The violence is fast and deadly, and the deafening gunshots make survival appear unlikely. It’s a beautiful scene that makes wonderful use of the Hong Kong night during the battle. The digital photography and up-close perspective create pure thrills that go beyond the gunfire. We experience these moments in a different way than most action scenes because we're right inside the mayhem; they have an intensity beyond the stakes for the characters. Mann sets the stage for this battle with a brief shot of a tracking device much earlier. It’s easy to forget this information as the story moves forward and not recognize the danger. Hathaway and Dwai are making progress, but each step forward leads them closer to disaster.

These scenes have a greater impact because we spend so much time looking at the virtual world. Mann finds a way to keep those moments interesting, however. In the film's opening scene, he presents the nuclear disaster by going inside the computers and following the worm to its destination. The camera zooms into a different universe that most closely resembles the original Tron. Instead of staring at a terminal, we’re experiencing the new world right in front of us. Mann worked with experts to ensure the technical side was accurate, and the hacking material feels authentic. The choice to open the film with an exciting and original look at computers is a clever way to avoid boring exposition.

Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang in Blackhat, directed by Michael Mann.
The love story and plot details aren't so convincing in this film. 

The Flip Side

The less inspiring side of Blackhat is the inability to develop a convincing narrative around its thrills and striking visuals. In one head-scratching moment, Hathaway and Chen Lien split from the group and conduct their own investigation. Hathaway is under constant surveillance from suspicious U.S. agents and will return to jail if their efforts fail, so letting him run loose seems unlikely. What’s odder is the fact that Burnett and Agent Jessup (Holt McCallany) seem okay with those activities in subsequent scenes. Another moment shows Hathaway strolling up to the room of a key lead with only Dwai accompanying him. After discovering a dead body, Hathaway strolls around the crime scene and uses the guy’s computer. The U.S. agents seem wary of him at first, but that perception switches to total acceptance without much explanation. Some doubts about Hathaway's true motivations would also have improved the tension. He's obviously a good guy from the moment we first meet him.

An even greater challenge comes from the love story between Hathaway and Chen Lien, which begins quickly. Mann gives clues about the romance by showing Hathaway glancing at her body in a taxi, and Chen Lien is impressed when he knocks out three goons. Their sex scene is shot beautifully, yet it’s less impactful because there’s little chemistry between the pair. Hemsworth struggles with awkward dialogue about his time in jail and laughably keeps his shirt open whenever possible. Beyond the obvious physical reasons, we don’t get a clear sense of why she loves him. Wei Tang tries her best to sell the interest, but it diminishes the value of her intelligent character. Her skills are on par with the men, so why make their romance so generic?

Viola Davis as Agent Barrett in Blackhat
Viola Davis brings a lot more to Agent Burnett than what's on the page.

Bureaucratic Failures

A more intriguing aspect is Blackhat’s depiction of government agencies in both the U.S. and China. Despite the potential damage from a cyber attack, they’re more concerned with giving up secrets to the other superpower. The short-sighted thinking makes quite a statement about bureaucracy putting everyone at risk. There’s more concern about politics than the devastation caused by a nuclear meltdown. Burnett and Jessup are soldiers that don’t share their bosses’ methods, but their power is limited. It’s hardly better on the Chinese side, where Dawai receives no support despite a serious lead on the hacker. He expects more given his familial connections, yet creating problems with the U.S. is his government's primary concern. Despite the high stakes, the agents are fighting a battle that means little to their small-minded superiors.

The ultimate revelation of the villain’s next target is surprisingly mundane, despite its impact on economic markets. What makes it fitting and more realistic is the way it differs from the world domination plans you’d see in many Bond films. We're in Quantum of Solace territory with this scheme. A bleak Malaysian mine feels like the perfect place to conduct a crime with so little glamour. It reveals the hacker as a guy with no political or social motivations. When we meet the chilling villain (Yorick van Wageningen), there’s no disfiguring scar or other notable characteristic. He’s a poorly dressed man that few would suspect of being a huge threat to our future.

Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat, directed by Michael Mann
Hemsworth is comfortable during the action scenes, especially the exciting climax.

Taking Charge

Blackhat’s climax is effective with Hathaway working amid thousands of extras at the annual Balinese Nyepi Day parade. He employs a lo-fi approach in a desperate effort to stop the enemy plans. He’s no longer a faceless guy sitting behind a computer screen and wants personal revenge. The scene works because of excellent staging yet not because we’re hoping for Hathaway’s survival. We’ve just met the primary villain, and it’s hard to care too much about him. This lack of a real connection probably explains the mixed reactions from some critics. Hemsworth looks great but doesn’t really click in the part. He’s more believable in the action scenes than selling his computer expertise; one reason is dialogue that doesn’t give him much depth. At one point, he stares in the sky and basically says "gotcha!" to the unseen enemy. The other actors are stellar (especially Davis and Koster) and do a lot with limited characters. They’re engaging in the moment but don’t leave a huge impression.

It’s hard to complain too much about Mann’s return when you consider all that Blackhat has to offer. It’s a striking film and includes creative choices that rank among the most interesting of his career. Its closest companion is Miami Vice, which had a similar murky plot and visual sense. It helped that the familiar title and stars brought a stronger box office, and it wasn’t buried in January. One difference with the new movie is the lack of convincing personal stakes for the lead characters. The final scene delivers less of an impact than it should despite the frenzy that preceded it. Mann sends his characters into the sunset, but it doesn’t stick as a notable finale. He’s created a memorable film that shows he still has plenty to offer. The question is whether audiences are still interested in his vision.