Archive for the ‘underrated’ category

Redwood Highway

June 22, 2014

11945_388969124578176_5236639086043232091_nJudi Dench is fantastic, but there are other septuagenarian actresses. One such is Shirley Knight, who turns 78 in a couple of weeks, and who provides the rock-solid center for the perfectly pleasant comedy-drama Redwood Highway. Knight is Marie, a widow and grandmother who passes the days at an Oregon retirement community. The place looks comfy as such places go, but Marie hadn’t planned to die there. She takes off, unannounced and without her resented cell phone, for lengthy walks by herself. This drives her adult son Michael (James Le Gros) nuts; she has a spiky, unstable relationship with him and with her granddaughter Naomi (Zena Grey), who’s about to get married.

The embittered Naomi, who knows Marie doesn’t approve of her fiancé, leaves her a message saying not to bother to come to the wedding. Marie, alas, is not the type who will do what she’s told to do, or told not to do. She sets out on foot, again unannounced, with a backpack and a bit of food swiped from the community snack table, on the eighty-mile journey to the wedding site. The premise may sound similar to last year’s overrated Nebraska, but I assure you this is the far better film, starting with the fact that Shirley Knight — who’s in almost every scene — wipes the floor with Bruce Dern’s monotonously irascible performance. Marie is what used to be called a “tough old broad,” but also vulnerable and eventually grateful for help. Fairly quickly, she figures out she’s not going to be able to make the trip solely on her own steam.

Knight’s Marie may be the sort of stubborn person it’s difficult to have in one’s own life — there’s some degree of sympathy for Michael, who moves heaven and earth to track Marie down once she goes missing from the community — but she’s terrific company for an hour and a half. Marie moves briskly and with purpose, and she speaks the same way to people she isn’t sure of. Knight makes her a tragicomic figure leaning towards comic; Marie doesn’t pity herself, so we don’t either. It helps that with one exception, when Marie happens across a couple of meth-heads at a deserted motel out in the boonies, everyone she meets is nice to her (and even one of the meth-heads doesn’t want to cause her any trouble — she reminds him of his grandma). Redwood Highway thus becomes a fable of kindness. It’s soothing, and no big points are being made for or against Marie or her rural surroundings (another reason I prefer it to Nebraska, which was nasty to everyone and everyplace on the screen).

Director Gary Lundgren picks the supporting cast well. Marie meets a widower played beautifully by Tom Skerritt, who reminds us of his effortless command of decency. There’s one moment when Skerritt rests his head on Knight’s shoulder, and it’s incredibly intimate and romantic even though the plot steers clear of romance. Michelle Lombardo is warm and nurturing as a young bartender who insists on giving Marie a bed to sleep in for a night. Twin Peaks fans will be happy to see Catherine E. Coulson, the Log Lady herself, as Marie’s best friend at the retirement community; her appearance is brief but winningly tremulous. None of these people are ridiculed; the script, by Lundgren and James Twyman, allows each character his or her humanity, and we feel they all have lives outside of Marie’s story, perhaps worthy of their own movies. About Skerritt’s character, who still tends the “artisan art” shop he and his wife once started, I would happily know more. And what about one of Marie’s old flames, a deaf old duffer who lives off the grid with, unaccountably, a Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” sticker in the front window of his cabin?

Redwood Highway moves at Marie’s pace, strong and purposeful, and arrives smoothly at its conclusion. Shirley Knight’s bullheaded performance reassures us that Marie will carry out her adventure, that she isn’t going to expire of a heart attack out in the woods or something stupidly melodramatic like that. Sometimes we don’t want to have to worry about what’s going to happen next in a movie; sometimes we just want to be pleasurably curious about what happens next, and we like Marie and want to be with her on her journey. The film’s synopsis tells us that Marie “discovers that you’re never too old to learn something about life and about yourself”; please ignore that, because it makes the movie sound much more softheaded than it is. It is, among other things, a sharp distaff rejoinder to the male-centered, sour-faced Nebraska; it’s what Nebraska might have been if it had forgotten about Bruce Dern and Will Forte and gone off to follow June Squibb.

Dario Argento’s Dracula

November 3, 2013

3.-ASIA-ARGENTO-AS-THE-UNDEAD-LUCY-IN-ARGENTOS-DRACULA-3DMost of the people shaking their heads sadly over Dario Argento’s Dracula don’t seem to know what he’s up to. Anyone who’s seen Euro-horror of the ’60s and ’70s, particularly by Jean Rollin or Jesús Franco, or Blood for Dracula or Flesh for Frankenstein or even some of the classic Hammer films, will go into this affectionate homage with a receptive state of mind. Argento’s Dracula does reflect some of the foibles of the above movies — it has its cheesy parts, its dull stretches, its incomprehensible moments. But then that’s Argento, too. The world-renowned maestro of such works as Suspiria and Profondo Rosso pretty much always left logic bleeding in the dust. He cares more about mood, music, the crescendo of violence, the rich sanguinary history of art. He’s going to make Dracula and amuse himself doing it and he doesn’t give a damn whether you think it’s the 2013 definition of cool.

Shot whenever possible in and around crumbling Italian castles and villages, Dracula has a distinct European whiff that can’t be faked or built, especially not on the $7 million budget Argento had. The relatively tiny piggy bank also shows in the never-convincing computer effects — Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann) turns into a wolf, an owl, a swarm of flies, and, in the movie’s height of nuttiness, a man-sized praying mantis. But no gritty verisimilitude is established here in the first place — it’s not as though any sane viewer is going to say “Man, I was totally convinced by this movie’s stark realism until the praying mantis showed up” — and if sketchy special effects send you packing, you’re going to miss out on half a thousand fun films from every era of horror cinema. The effects here (partially handled by longtime Argento collaborator Sergio Stivaletti, joining an old-school crew including cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and composer Claudio Simonetti) are pretty obviously consciously, winkingly artificial.

Argento and his three co-screenwriters more or less glance at Bram Stoker’s novel, toss it aside and make shit up. Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) is now a librarian, summoned to catalog the tomes lining the walls of Castle Dracula. Lucy Westenra is now Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento), the mayor’s daughter and best friend of Harker’s beloved, Mina (Marta Gastini). There’s also Tania (Miriam Giovanelli), a fair-haired local maiden who becomes a bride of Dracula and gets her kit off whenever feasible; Renfield (Giovanni Franzoni) is now in blood thrall to Tania. Since this Renfield is too weird to do Dracula’s bidding effectively, Dracula also has a bald, beefy bruiser named Zoran (Giuseppe Lo Console), who resembles Pawn Stars’ Rick Harrison and lumbers around ax-murdering those who threaten to expose the Master.

And then Dr. Van Helsing shows up; this character has traditionally been an occasion for juicy overacting from the likes of Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins, so perverse Argento has Rutger Hauer play Van Helsing as if awakened from a deep nap before each take. Hauer’s compelling anyway, though, making bullets out of garlic and silver, or dispatching an enemy with laughable abruptness (the victim’s eye pops out in gnarly 3D, for those lucky enough to see Dracula in the format). I can’t really judge most of the acting, which has that charming dubbed quality familiar from many afternoons wasted in front of tax-shelter horror. I can say that Thomas Kretschmann (currently playing Van Helsing, ironically, on NBC’s Dracula) brings a certain old-world delicacy to his seduction scenes and a persuasive brutality to his violent scenes, and that Asia Argento seems finally fulfilled as a hissing vampire with her head on fire.

I’d say you need to have seen enough clunky horror movies to enjoy Argento’s goofing around here. It’s Dracula; he’s going to take it deadly seriously? (That’s the pitfall of the NBC series so far, methinks.) It’s colorful and tacky and eccentric, with elements smuggled in from Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest.” And there’s the damn praying mantis, which I think is the firm dividing line here. If you can’t cackle and appreciate that, this Dracula does not have your name written all over it. I just sat back and said “Why the hell not.” And that’s not only a useful approach to Argento’s party, it’s possibly also the film’s artistic credo. A seemingly pointless shot of Dracula pacing around his castle and growling, looking like an outtake of the actor trying to get into character? Why the hell not. A long-distance shot of a tiny Dracula scaling the wall of his castle and hissing at the camera? Why the hell not. Argento hasn’t been this playful in years, and neither has Dracula.

The Lone Ranger

July 7, 2013

the_lone_rangerWell, it sure was a strange and subversive Fourth of July gift Disney decided to give the country with The Lone Ranger. The movie, which is actually a lot better than most critics would have you believe, inspires feelings ranging from disrespect to downright scorn for the following institutions: the U.S. military, the U.S. government, American capitalism, and the Lone Ranger himself (Armie Hammer), who starts out as a bumbling tenderfoot lawyer named John Reid. At one point, his savior Tonto (Johnny Depp) drags kemosabe through horse manure. That’s right, the Lone Ranger gets scat-bombed by noble Silver himself. I can picture, with some glee and schadenfreude, the apoplexy of such cultural guardians as Michael Medved at the notion of the House of Walt exposing millions of American children to such … such blasphemy!

Perhaps predictably, I had a fine time. The Lone Ranger stays up a bit past its bedtime at two hours and thirty minutes, though such blockbuster bloat is par for the course with director Gore Verbinski, who guided Depp through the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies (not being a fan, I only saw the first). The film lurches forward with the weight of serious money, much of which is put to good use evoking the American West of 1869 on a scale you’re not likely to see again on the big screen any time soon. The budget is also on the screen in a clear-eyed and exhilarating climax involving two trains. Verbinski shoots action cleanly and unabashedly, the way Spielberg in his prime used to, and the way James Cameron still does, on the rare occasions these days that he can be bothered to do so.

There’s been some kerfuffle, some of it understandable, at the presumption of Johnny Depp playing Tonto instead of a Native American actor. Depp, who claims (like seemingly eight out of ten other Americans) Cherokee or Creek ancestry and was last year adopted into the Comanche Nation, has his heart in the right place, I think. If you can find the only film he directed, 1997’s The Brave, you will find a man very in tune with the bitterness and rage of indigenous Americans. And then there’s Jim Jarmusch’s acid western Dead Man, wherein Depp’s dying white man William Blake was befriended by a Native American and sent off to the other side in ceremonial raiments. At times, The Lone Ranger plays like William Blake’s final fever dream in the canoe carrying him across the river of ghosts, only here he imagines himself as the Native American who saves a white man. Depp’s Tonto is weird and unstable, driven mad by the genocidal treachery of white men. I would place Tonto as the missing link between William Blake and Raphael from The Brave. It’s not the goofball redface-Jack-Sparrow turn the ads lead you to expect; the performance has the derangement of pain in it.

The official plot motor has John Reid and Tonto teaming up to capture the evil Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner in a performance of supreme scurviness), but just nabbing him doesn’t get the job done; the tendrils of corruption that animate Butch reach deeply out from the “values” on which America was founded (along with a thick layer of non-white bones). You can’t just shoot this bad guy: there’s a whole government/nascent-corporate apparatus backing him up. Against this, Reid and Tonto are obliged to obscure their faces and charge forward. By the way, this is all related to us in flashback by the old and decrepit Tonto, as in Little Big Man, and the film tries on costumes from what must be dozens of other westerns. It’s an epic western amusement-park ride, though “amusement” isn’t quite the word — bemusement, maybe?

“The Noble Savage,” reads the condescendingly oxymoronic banner underneath the old, posing Tonto (it’s 1933), and The Lone Ranger puts the lie to both words while redefining most every white man on the screen as an ignoble savage. I don’t mean to harp so much on the political message of what’s essentially an escapist summer blow-out, but there is more under the hood here than the media wants to talk about (mostly the angle is how much it cost and how poorly it did over the holiday frame). There is probably a valid reading of the film as klutzy white-guilt self-congratulation: See, at least one white man joined forces with the insulted and injured against the behemoth of Manifest Destiny. Despite his best efforts, though, an entire Comanche tribe gets mowed down by America’s great new innovation, the Gatling gun. (The weapon is some five years anachronistic for 1869, but we’ll let it pass.) Since few ticket-buyers were up for this Fourth of July history lesson, there will be no Lone Ranger 2 in which Reid and Tonto continue their fight against injustice. For that, I gather, we must look to superhero franchises for the foreseeable future.

Premium Rush

August 25, 2012

Premium Rush moves like New York City — fast and hard, with nary a backward glance. The movie is about Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a NYC bike messenger tasked to deliver an envelope. This envelope contains something very much desired by Detective Monday (Michael Shannon), a corrupt cop who wants to intercept it before it reaches its destination. Wilee is probably named after the luckless cartoon character, but he’s more like the Road Runner, with the cop as the coyote. Most of the city cops in the film, including a bike cop Wilee consistently stymies, are annoyances or obstacles. It’s an eerie coincidence that Premium Rush opened on the same day that New York City police, trying to take down a gunman, ended up wounding nine bystanders. New York’s finest, indeed.

Apart from its unintended ironies, Premium Rush is a fat-free thriller with breathtaking high-speed bike chases — we’re told the footage is unfaked — through busy Manhattan streets. Professional stunt drivers can almost do flashy, bone-crunching car chases in their sleep, but what must really require nerve-racking attention are the many scenes here in which cars are always braking within inches of hitting a bicyclist. There’s a lot of subtle yet thrilling car choreography here, reminding us that sometimes it’s more exciting when you see two or three near-simultaneous accidents narrowly averted.

Wilee is a great bicyclist, eschewing gears and even brakes; he relies on his legs and his instincts, and we see the latter at work at several points when Wilee has to make a split-second decision which way to go, and his imagination plays out various scenarios (if you go this way, you hit someone’s stroller; if you go that way, you’re gonna fly over someone’s hood). It’s as if Wilee’s got a rapid-fire GPS in his head that steers him to safety — in most cases. The director of Premium Rush is David Koepp, who’s primarily a screenwriter but has made a few interesting films, chiefly his directorial debut The Trigger Effect. Here, Koepp just takes us for a ride, no subtext required or desired. It’s a trim piece of work, maybe his best, because it isn’t bogged down and it knows how to sketch characters on the fly. In the minimalist-thriller race, I’ll take this over the pretentious Drive in a New York minute.

It helps that the Road Runner and the coyote are impeccably cast; Joseph Gordon-Levitt is accessible, smart, athletic, everything a young action hero needs to be, while Michael Shannon, born in Kentucky and raised there and in Chicago, almost single-handedly brings a ’70s New York flavor to the movie. (Detective Monday isn’t always eating a sloppy, garlicky sandwich, but spiritually he is.) There’s more New York irritability, desperation and unchecked pride in Shannon’s performance than in the entirety of the Taking of Pelham 123 remake from a few years ago. Shannon usually plays suffering saps in indie films (and is great at it), but here he’s clearly having a great time and shares it with us. The movie doesn’t stop there, surrounding Wilee with a crew of colorful support, including Dania Ramirez as Wilee’s ex-girlfriend and fellow bike messenger and Aasif Mandvi as his dispatcher. Everyone in the film has New York fever, and every damn time you see a cop he always interrupts himself to hassle someone over something small.

Premium Rush might be purer if we never knew what was in the envelope, but we find out it can lead to a little boy’s freedom. On one level that’s kind of a bummer — do it for the kid! — but on another level it adds some warmth and urgency to the chase. And the movie keeps going at a clip; the editors, Jill Savitt (who’s cut most of Koepp’s films) and Derek Ambrosi (making his feature debut), can take a well-earned bow. This is the kind of low-expectation late-summer film that can all too often fall under the radar but delivers more honestly and forcefully than most of its warm-weather predecessors. Watching Wilee and his cohorts bob and weave in and out of bleating traffic while Michael Shannon hilariously chews the scenery (minus one tooth) offers, if not pure cinema, at least pure entertainment.


July 14, 2012

Savages, the new drug thriller directed by Oliver Stone, has been getting a bit of a bum rap. This hard-charging controversialist doesn’t always need to poke America’s soft spots; sometimes he just wants to have a good lowdown time, as he did in his freaky U-Turn fifteen years ago. Savages would make a fine double bill with U-Turn, up to the point where many viewers will bail — when Stone delivers a tragic ending, apparently along the lines of Don Winslow’s source novel, and then rescinds it. For me, though, the “happy ending” actually politicizes the movie more than a crime-does-not-pay finale would have. It also says a lot about the Hollywood system in which Stone is expected to work these days. If Universal nudged Stone’s hand here, are they aware they’ve given a happily-ever-after to drug dealers?

Those dealers are almost cartoonishly whitebread: Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who picked up some excellent seeds during his tours, and Ben (Aaron Johnson), a do-gooder with a minor in botany. They’re both in love with Ophelia (Blake Lively), or “O,” and the three of them run a highly prosperous weed business out of Laguna Beach and are happy as clams until a Mexican cartel wants in. Ben and Chon try to fake out the cartel and split for Indonesia, but the Mexicans kidnap O, and the plot thickens. The cartel’s scary enforcer is Lado (Benicio del Toro), who likes to strike terror with chainsaws and whips, but the true mastermind is Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), who wears her hair in cruel black bangs. Even Lado is afraid of her. You might be, too. Stone has seldom known what to do with the women in his largely masculine films, but he gets a vivid, iconic portrait of corrupt humanity out of Hayek. After this and Frida, isn’t it time to admit that Hayek is one of our great actresses?

The story has many branches, including a dirty DEA agent (John Travolta), a perhaps too sensitive Mexican tasked to watch over O, and mostly faceless war buddies of Chon’s who always seem ready to drop everything and sit around in the desert for him with sniper rifles. Travolta is probably never better here than when Chon has just stabbed him in the hand and he seems less physically wounded than affronted in his soft spot, his dignity. Everyone here, indeed, has a soft spot, as Ben points out in one of his more lucid moments. Travolta’s other soft spot is his wife, expiring of cancer at home; he avails himself of some of Ben and Chon’s weed to make his wife’s chemo more bearable. This leads to Travolta’s other fine moment, when Ben asks how his wife is doing and Travolta says simply, “She’s dying,” and we’re reminded of the vulnerable actor who moved us in Blow Out and Saturday Night Fever.

Savages goes like a speedboat — its two hours and eleven minutes streak by. Stone shows a strong taste for brutality here; this is possibly his most splattery film since Natural Born Killers, and the presence of freshly chainsawed heads, skulls perforated in close-up, and the hard-to-watch fate of a man accused of being a DEA rat speaks volumes about how tolerant the MPAA is of violence these days. There’s also a good deal of sex (though no nudity from Blake Lively, much to her fans’ chagrin, no doubt) and, of course, near-constant drug use. Savages muscles its way into the heart of the hermetic superhero summer, sweating and cursing and bleeding and smoking and fucking. In its way, it’s a throwback to ’70s cinema, where nobody was all good or all bad, before George Lucas’ black-and-white chessboard design mapped itself over American entertainment.

This is by no means Oliver Stone’s best work — neither was U-Turn. But it’s his best work in well over a decade. He has a story here and he sticks to it, jazzing it up visually every so often, though never calling attention to his technique. He seems to be done with the Cuisinart style, as well as the Indian mystics who used to pop up in every Stone movie of the ’90s. If he has a muse this time, it’s Buddhist: Ben is a follower of the Dalai Lama’s teachings (up to a point), and O is referred to as a lotus. The comic tragedy of the movie is that nobody practices non-attachment, when they really should. Stone, a self-described Buddhist himself, makes movies that would horrify a monk but, in their rough fashion, stand as fairly memorable illustrations of the Four Noble Truths. Stone’s movies are full of what Buddhists call hungry ghosts, craving sensation and wealth, trying haplessly to fill a void in themselves. That double ending starts to make sense: it’s Stone saying “This is what could happen. And this is also what could happen. You have a choice.” The ghosts stop feeding and become people.

Red State

September 4, 2011

Someday, Kevin Smith’s Red State will form a natural double feature with his 1999 religious farce Dogma. The earlier film, shaggy and undisciplined, was Smith’s profanity-laced conversation with himself about his Catholicism; Red State is equally scattershot but has far darker things to say about religion, or at least the ways in which it can be perverted. Smith had long talked up Red State as his “horror movie,” but it really isn’t one, not at first glance; it’s more of an ideological drama in which two parties face off, taking orders from a higher power, or what they believe to be a higher power. Smith doesn’t trust people who claim to know the will of God; he also doesn’t trust people who carry guns for the government. Bill Hicks, if he were still with us, might raise a beer bottle in tribute to the film.

Red State does begin something like Hostel — a trio of teenagers head out to a trailer in the boonies in search of sex and wind up kidnapped by religious extremists. This clan, known as the Five Points Church, is headed by the hate-spewing pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who brings his flock to protest at funerals with appallingly homophobic placards. Sound familiar? This aspect of the clan is obviously inspired by Fred Phelps and his wacko brigade, though Phelps’ group is mentioned in the script as being “suers, not doers.” Cooper’s clan are doers, all right: they live on a walled-off compound, fortified with military ordnance. They use the internet to lure and execute sinners. Laboring under a gargantuan monologue delivered to Cooper’s tiny congregation, the always-compelling Michael Parks manages to sell it, and many other small, subtle moments as well. He’s certainly more fun to watch than many actual fundamentalist loudmouths.

When the local police learn there’s a hostage situation at Five Points, and the matter is kicked upstairs to the ATF, Red State takes a hard left into ethical drama. John Goodman takes over the movie as Keenan, an ATF agent painfully aware of the legacy of the Waco siege at the Branch Davidian compound. Smith is aware of it, too. Cooper and the adult members of his cult are murderers, but there are also children there. Keenan’s orders are to kill everyone, leaving no one alive to testify against the government. He wrestles intensely with this, while his men, young and panicky, unload indiscriminately in the direction of whatever’s shooting at them. The firefights are sharply edited (by Smith himself); the sound design is realistic and punishing. People die randomly all over the place. Cooper believes God is telling him to kill sinners. Keenan is told straight-up to kill the killers and innocents alike. Who are the bad guys here?

Red State feels cynical and unresolved, and that’s about right, given the thorny areas Smith is wading into. In the end, it could be defined as a political horror film, of the sort that’s cruelly plausible in real life. Smith conflates Fred Phelps and David Koresh, suggesting a toxic stew of southern-fried religious hatred stirred up by happy triggers on both sides. It’s a flawed, unfocused movie, just as Dogma was, but they both come from the honest place of a filmmaker with something on his mind. That narrative hard left so many people have complained about lifts Red State above the Wicker Man rip-off it might’ve been. As always, Smith counsels us, “Question authority. Question yourselves, too, while you’re at it.”

Sucker Punch

March 27, 2011

Pity the poor workaday film critics who have to make sense of something like Sucker Punch. They have to stand and deliver a logical assessment of this crazed, three-headed Ghidorah of a film; they have to persuade their editors that they aren’t immature enough, attention-deficit-disordered enough, to fall for such heavy-breathing juvenilia. Perhaps the majority of critics are simply being honest when they say that they feel battered and annoyed by Sucker Punch, that it portends the death of movies, that its hotshot director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) should be sent to his room without supper. I, too, must be honest, and I can opine with very little reservation that Snyder has constructed a right-brain classic, a coruscating work of pure cinema that, at times, plays as though some brave loon at Warner Brothers handed Snyder the keys to an $82 million art-house oddity.

The story is a wheel within a wheel within a wheel, and I can imagine fans and non-fans alike working earnestly to parse the levels of reality and fantasy — what “really” happened, what “real-life” event has a “fantasy” analogue. The easy answer is that nothing in Sucker Punch “really happened.” It’s a movie. Duh. From there we can simply read the film as Snyder’s riff on themes of freedom, escapism, and institutional (the pun is and isn’t intended) sexism. In the run-up to the film’s release, Snyder went around saying things like (regarding the heroines’ peekaboo techno-fetish garb) “I didn’t dress them that way. You did.” The girls are dressed that way because ass-kicking girls in action movies have to be hot, as per the demand of the audience. Thus Snyder has made, in part, a movie that critiques other movies, just like Godard advised us to do. You don’t like Sucker Punch? Direct your own answer to it.

Godard’s confrere Truffaut said, “The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure,” and Sucker Punch is that, if nothing else. The quintet of girls flip in and out of massive set pieces resembling nothing so much as a boy’s epic combat play with a wide assortment of action figures from a dozen different toy lines. The girls are plunked into that universe like Barbie dolls, except they’re lethal Barbie dolls. The lead character (Emily Browning) is even named Baby Doll, and the others have names like Sweet Pea and Blondie. Nobody except Snyder named the girls; nobody except Snyder put them in the situations they’re in, so the movie is also a gigantic critique of Snyder’s own ain’t-it-cool aesthetic.

The girls, on a videogame-like mission to find various objects that will earn their freedom, don’t seem to feel much terror or joy in battle. They are emotional only in the setting of the burlesque house and brothel they’re “really” in, which may be a fantasy extension of the asylum they’re “really” in. What they’re “really” in is a movie called Sucker Punch that conceptually robs them of their dignity and humanity much as the male-fronted brothel/asylum does. But Snyder has cast the girls shrewdly, and the near-wordless Emily Browning, eyebrows perpetually knitted in anguish, compels us to lean forward and know what she’s feeling. Her cohorts — tough-minded Abbie Cornish, sympathetic Jena Malone, conflicted Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung — breathe life into their archetypes.

There’s a final betrayal of complacent audience expectations — the twist that gives the movie its name and probably served as the straw that broke the critics’ backs. Zack Snyder is wading deeply into meta-fiction here, toying roughly with storytelling itself. But always, always he seeks to entertain, to mount dazzling sequences set to the heavy insistent march of Björk’s “Army of Me” or various rock-classic covers. I’ve run hot and cold on Snyder; Watchmen impressed me, his other stuff didn’t. But this wild beast, whether he even fully understands it himself, is indeed the death of a certain kind of movie — the death and ne plus ultra at the same time, the apocalyptic orgasm that kills everything.

How can we take action cinema, or babes-with-guns flicks, remotely seriously (if we ever could) after Sucker Punch? Snyder has created a monument to entertainment that he loves but, presumably, hates himself for loving. It is both a guilty pleasure and the original wellspring of guilt, plumbing the melodramatic Prozac-porn of Sylvia Plath and Girl, Interrupted and 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” to remind us of what Swoosie Kurtz had to tell us in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom: “Crazy women are made by crazy men.” Crazy movies are, too. And sometimes great movies.

Take Me Home Tonight

March 6, 2011

Take Me Home Tonight is set in 1988, the year I graduated from high school. So I would’ve been a few years behind this movie’s characters, most of whom are Class of ’84 and are now looking back on four years of life post-high school. Some, like Matt Franklin (Topher Grace) and his twin sister Wendy (Anna Faris), have now also graduated from college but don’t know what to do with their degrees. Should Matt, who went to MIT, go into engineering and leave his safe, fallback Suncoast Video gig? (“I didn’t spend a quarter of my life savings,” says Matt’s cop-with-a-heart-of-gold dad, played by Michael Biehn, “so that you could work in a mall.”) Will Wendy ditch her stupid boyfriend and prospective fiancé (Chris Pratt, in real life Mr. Faris) and pursue her creative muse in Cambridge (that’s England, not Massachusetts)?

The movie, which like The Wedding Singer seems to want to fold the entire ’80s into two hours, is about something interesting: the post-college blues, wherein you’re still regularly seeing people you know from high school, who don’t seem all that different than they were — it has only been four years — so you don’t feel all that different. But life beckons, waiting for you to make some choices. What ties the movie to its actual ’80s ancestors is a variety of familiar tropes: the unrequited love who got away (Teresa Palmer), the cringing-geek buddy (Dan Fogler) who gets high (cocaine is a hell of a drug) and falls into squalor and embarrassment, the family bonds stronger than passing fancies. Take Me Home Tonight is particularly good at the last: Matt and Wendy talk and act like real siblings. I can see why Matt is annoyed that Wendy might drop her literary dream to marry a frat douche.

The film isn’t much, but for those of us who appreciate anything ’80s, it’s a perfectly painless nostalgia trip. It even has the cheapjack, slightly grainy look and muddy sound of an actual mid-’80s flick. All I needed to make the illusion complete was the odor of stale spilled beer of the crappy theaters of my youth. Faris gratifyingly plays smarter than she’s usually asked to play; Grace makes a suitable Andrew McCarthy/Anthony Michael Hall stand-in. The weirdest and perhaps funniest scene involves a passive three-way between Dan Fogler, a voracious Angie Everhart, and a strange man who wants only to watch, played by Clement von Franckenstein, the coolest name I’ve heard this year so far. (His full name is Clement George Freiherr von und zu Franckenstein, which is even cooler. Anyway, he lends the movie a jocular Euro-decadent flavor that reminded me of good old Dieter Meier, of the Zurich electro-pop band Yello, whose leering “Oh Yeah” was inescapable during the late ’80s.)

Take Me Home Tonight was completed so long ago (2007) that some of its bit players, like Whitney Cummings and Ginnifer Goodwin, have gone on to successes of their own. It was on the shelf that long not because it’s bad — it isn’t — but because the studio fretted over the cocaine use by two characters. Since the Bolivian marching powder, in this movie, leads only to a god-awful bathroom tryst while Clement George Freiherr von und zu Franckenstein watches, I don’t think Universal (which once upon a time unleashed Animal House upon the youth of America) should’ve worried much about it. This is your libido. This is your libido on cocaine. Any questions?

Anyway, a lot of the plot hinges tiresomely on a ruse worthy of Three’s Company (or That ’70s Show, of which Topher Grace and scripters Jackie and Jeff Filgo are graduates): Matt pretends to be working at Goldman Sachs to impress his high-school crush. Goldman Sachs, of course, was not in 1988 the spit-flecked profanity on our lips it is today. The ’80s were definitively the Money Decade, full of conspicuous consumption and questionable fashion and — to me, anyway — awesome music. The soundtrack of Take Me Home Tonight is predictable, even making use of standards from ’80s tribute movies like Grosse Pointe Blank (hello, Pete Townshend’s slow-dance remix of “Let My Love Open the Door”). But it ends with a tune I hadn’t heard since the ’80s, and I bow to no one in my hunger for ’80s obscurities: “Live Is Life,” a 1985 charter by the Austrian band Opus. Now, of course, I can’t get it out of my head, but any movie that can exhume a long-forgotten ’80s ditty for me gets a passing grade.

Drive Angry 3D

February 27, 2011

What we have here, folks, is body parts flying through the air in 3D, gratuitous sex and nudity in 3D, Satanic rituals in 3D, supernatural bullets blowing car doors off in 3D … Doesn’t sound like your thing? Click away to something else. Drive Angry 3D is a rock-solid, fist-pumping grindhouse throwback about ten times more entertaining than almost anything in Grindhouse. Gleefully shameless, the movie wallows in wrongness, and that’s exactly where an exploitation flick needs to be. It is also, of course, as dumb as a box of hair, but when delivered with wit and commitment, as it is here, dumbness can be more satisfying and liberating than anything that wins Oscars this weekend.

Nicolas Cage helps a lot. Cage is in iconic bad-ass mode here as John Milton, a former criminal out to rescue his granddaughter from a Satanic cult. I’ve seen reviews that give away what Milton really is, and I’ve seen reviews that don’t. I won’t. What I will say is that Milton has a way of attracting women who usually fall for bad boys. They fall very hard, very quickly for him. His relationship with foul-mouthed, hard-punching ex-waitress Piper (Amber Heard), however, remains chaste. He needs her help, and, more specifically, her ex-boyfriend’s ’69 Charger. I suspect that if Piper’s ex drove a modern hybrid, Milton might’ve kept looking; he and the movie both worship classic muscle cars.

Any movie that casts William Fichtner as a mysterious emissary who calls himself The Accountant and can kill two men with a flip of a quarter has done half its work already. Strolling through the chaos with amusing sangfroid, Fichtner is also responsible for perpetuating what I guess is a new micro-trend in recent movies: this is the second time in as many weeks in which a character sits completely deadpan inside a vehicle falling backward from a great height, last week’s example being Unknown. The Accountant is on Milton’s trail, while Milton is pursuing Jonah King (Billy Burke), the leader of the Satanic cult. You know Jonah is evil because he’s a white man with a soul patch. He also has ’70s hair and sideburns — whoever groomed Burke for the role knew what kind of film this is.

After an unpromising start with the execrable Dracula 2000, director Patrick Lussier has recently given himself a second life as a designer of cheerfully meretricious 3D drive-in fare; his previous effort was 2009’s My Bloody Valentine 3D, much loved by a section of horror fandom. Drive Angry 3D, too, dabbles in horror and gore; it is, unlike Milton’s preferred vehicles, a hybrid — a mix of lowball 42nd-Street revengeploitation and supernatural schlock, complete with a Satanic cadre that travels in a bland-looking Winnebago (an affront to the hard-driving Milton). This hybrid guzzles gas, though, and spews a fog of violence and profanity and T&A — toxic for some viewers, I admit, but a shot of oxygen to grindhouse acolytes. The movie stabs it and steers, to quote another Cage anti-hero, burns rubber, and doesn’t give a fuck about global warming.

PS: Tom Atkins is in this, being a bad-ass as only Tom Atkins can. I forgot to mention him in the review proper. But Tom Atkins should never be overlooked.


April 15, 2010

Back in college, I doodled a weird little scenario in one of my notebooks. Two street thugs were beating up a hapless, confused, very non-superpowered man wearing a superhero costume. Writer-director Peter Stebbings has now made an entire film out of my idle sketch. I hope he has excellent lawyers.

Actually, Defendor is far from the first film to strand a superhero in the squalid real world (Blankman and Special were there first, to name but two), and it won’t be the last (Kick-Ass looms on the horizon). But I imagine it’s the most stinging and heartfelt. Whatever methods Stebbings used to peer into my college notebook eighteen years ago, he has found considerable pathos, and not a little heroism, in the image of a forlorn mouth-breather in a costume discovering that fighting is easier in the comics.

Woody Harrelson’s Arthur Poppington, who likes to call himself Defendor when on the prowl, is a cross between Woody Boyd and Mickey Knox: a simple, good-hearted man who nevertheless has reserves of razory madness. Flotsam from an awful childhood, Arthur tries to make sense of the world by dressing up and dedicating himself to defeating “Captain Industry,” an imaginary kingpin he thinks killed his slatternly mom with drugs. When Arthur meets Angel (Kat Dennings), a young crack whore, his manner around her is stiff and uncomfortable — he won’t let her arouse him — until he develops protective feelings towards her. It’s pretty obvious he sees Angel as his mother, and doesn’t want her to die all over again. Without going over the top, Harrelson commits himself to the reality of Arthur and the fantasy of Defendor, letting us see each in the other. It’s full and generous work from an often-underrated actor.

Defendor, which went straight to DVD in America (it’s a shoestring Canadian production), will alienate some because it seems to start out funny and then takes a turn into tragedy. But a closer look reveals that it’s never really all that funny. An addled, emotionally damaged man who needs to climb into a get-up and fight crime is not, in the real world, fodder for comedy or even escapism. I believe it was Alan Moore, or perhaps Frank Miller, who once said that someone like Batman in the real world would simply be sad and scary, a lunatic in a cape.

Moore and Miller, of course, were responsible for deconstructing the superhero in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. They were influenced by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood’s Mad parody “Superduperman,” and that goes back to 1953. Four-color heroes have been mocked for almost as long as they’ve existed. But Defendor doesn’t really mock Arthur (though almost everyone in the film does). Other than the outright scumbags, like Elias Koteas as a dirty cop, people look askance at Defendor at first but then get to know Arthur; they respond to the cracked folly of his mission, his essential kindness. Stebbings shows genuine compassion and affection for the man, and the film, for me, works for that reason — it’s not just “Hey, get a load of the tard in the costume.” The movie is unexpectedly gentle; by subjecting the superhero trope to harsh, cruel reality, it ends up restoring its sense of wonder. Arthur works like hell just to stay alive in those fights; he might not understand that he can get killed, but we do.

The film has its flaws; it’s a little poky, and the prohibitive budget puts a cap on how persuasive the urban milieu can be (as others have noted, there seem to be about ten people in the city). But this is a small, decent triumph with real shades of feeling. It’d be a shame if it got lost in the backwash of hype for movies like Kick-Ass and the similar movies sure to follow.


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