Archive for September 2013

Cold Blooded

September 28, 2013

timthumbThe aptly-titled Cold Blooded is the first feature film directed by Jason Lapeyre; he made it before co-directing the terrific I Declare War (both are newly available on iTunes). Both films are tightly wrought meditations on violence, though Cold Blooded fits much more comfortably into a genre file drawer — it’s a crime thriller, handled with what Hemingway called clean hands and composure, appealingly minimalist and sharing some DNA with the early work of John Carpenter. (The end-title music strongly recalls Carpenter’s Escape from New York theme, and the premise tips its hat to Halloween II and Assault on Precinct 13 while being worthier of the latter than Precinct 13’s own remake was.) Judging from Lapeyre’s two features thus far, I’d say we have yet another Canadian director to watch. Must be something in the water up there.

The movie kicks off with a Reservoir Dogs vibe: thieves escaping from a diamond heist. It goes badly, and one of the thieves, Eddie Cordero (Ryan Robbins), is badly beaten and taken into custody. After better than two days of unconsciousness, Eddie wakes up in the hospital to find himself guarded by no-nonsense cop Frances Jane (Zoie Palmer). Before long, we discover that Frances isn’t so much guarding against Eddie’s escape as guarding him against heist colleagues who now want to kill him. They’re both up against cobra-like Louis Holland (William MacDonald), a top-flight sociopath who isn’t above using surgical tools close to hand to obtain what he wants.

Cold-Blooded is almost what Michael Douglas described in his recent Emmy speech as a two-hander — much of the movie is a contest of wills between Eddie, who’s not as violent or as psychotic as the crew he ran with, and Frances, who insists on following the law even when it would seem to do her the least good. The Carpenter feeling continues in the performances of Palmer (who resembles the young Edie Falco) and Robbins, who have a gratifying ice-and-fire rapport. Lapeyre doesn’t forget about the other characters, though; we spend a bit of time with two separately terrified men — a doctor (Husein Madhavji) and the diamond-store clerk coerced into facilitating the heist (Sergio Di Zio) — who of course end up paired off, each nattering about protecting their families.

There’s a bit of grisliness early on, unrevealed by me, that’s a gift that keeps on giving — it raises the stakes, puts a ticking clock on the proceedings, and provides several queasily absurdist moments. (Admirably played straight by one and all.) It also signals that all bets are off, since we don’t expect to see such a game-changing event so soon in a narrative. It informs everything that follows, and, though bloody, it isn’t leered at or even shown in much detail. Jason Lapeyre used to write for the excellent Canadian horror magazine Rue Morgue, but he isn’t a gorehound; covering movies that treated violence as a meaningless game and movies in which violence actually meant something may have shown him which way to go. Cold Blooded may depict cold-bloodedness, but its own blood is warm and vital, without succumbing to unearned sentimentality or emotion (Eddie and Frances don’t become best friends or something).

The filmmaking is remarkably clear-eyed and economical. The first images, almost still photos, suggest snapshots of what happened and why it went wrong. Every edit and line of dialogue have a purpose: not for nothing do I compare Cold Blooded to early Carpenter, who never let plot get in the way of the story. We like Frances and even sleazy Eddie, they get put in a bad situation, and we watch them trying to think their way out of it. You could probably count the number of gunshots on the fingers of one hand, have enough fingers to count the number of clichés, and still have a pinky left over. Lapeyre’s one concession to visuals over logic is the heroine’s iconically bloody face, which maybe could’ve been wiped clean sooner, but nobody’s thinking much about skin care under the circumstances, and it fits in with Lapeyre’s concerns running through both I Declare War and Cold Blooded: blood is sticky and messy, and having it there on the heroine’s cheek is a constant reminder.

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Prisoners

September 21, 2013

Capture19You know what you’re in for with the first shot, of a snowy patch of woods in late autumn, while a voice-over intones the Lord’s Prayer. A deer wanders into the frame, and the camera pulls back to reveal someone aiming a rifle. Bang! Christianity and unmotivated gun violence: ain’t that America? Prisoners, the first film in English by the Quebec director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), feels as though it wants to be part of the national conversation; it seems to want to be more than a kidnapped-kids thriller (especially with its generous running time of two hours and thirty-three minutes). For a long time, Villeneuve’s patient formalism and Roger Deakins’ typically luscious cinematography make Prisoners a pleasant, and pleasantly adult, sit. Then it seems to remember that it has to wrap things up neatly (why?), and the last half hour, despite the occasional jolt of excitement, is an embarrassment.

In a drab Pennsylvania suburb, two families get together for Thanksgiving: Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello head over to the (slightly better-looking) home of Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. Jackman, I think, also brings some of the deer his son just shot in the first scene. The families each have a teenage kid and a small daughter. The two small daughters leave the house after Thanksgiving dinner and never return. Prisoners then becomes about how the parents, and specifically Jackman, respond to the crisis. Howard and Davis recede, and Bello zonks herself out on pills — the brief moments of levity the elsewhere-vibrant actresses Bello and Davis share pre-kidnapping have to last us a long time, because the movie turns into The Hugh Jackman Show. The poor man, who seems to have dedicated much of his film career to making us forget he can also be a charming song-and-dance light comedian, rages and suffers and howls and falls off the wagon and generally comports himself like someone even Wolverine might cross the street to avoid.

The police, led by Jake Gyllenhaal as a detective who’s “never lost a case,” find a mentally challenged young man (Paul Dano) who certainly seems to be the kidnapper, but the girls are nowhere to be seen, and after 24 hours the cops have no evidence on him and have to release him. Wolverine — er, Jackman — swings into action, kidnapping Dano, stashing him in a dilapidated, abandoned apartment building he happens to have inherited, and torturing him for information while Terrence Howard mostly stands around looking queasy. Meanwhile, someone else is sneaking around the neighborhood at night and apparently breaking into the Jackman and Howard homes. Could he be the kidnapper? Or how about the old child-molesting ex-priest who has something interesting in his basement?

Denis Villeneuve appears to be fighting this material tooth and nail. He brings a burnish of high burgundy seriousness to the staging, but the plot is irredeemably pulpy and runs on a thin tank of coincidence and convolution. Villeneuve seems to want the film to say something about the American character as personified by Jackman, a struggling carpenter (Jesus?) who fills his own basement with survival supplies and passes easily into righteous fury. Gyllenhaal’s cop, I guess, is there as balance, but he doesn’t do much of anything, and it takes him forever to figure anything out (some detective). The extended running time is there to pile on more and more twists, not to discover anything in the characters. The only thing we learn about Terrence Howard’s character, aside from his not having the stomach for torture, is that he plays the trumpet badly. About Viola Davis we learn not even that much. Spike Lee’s comments about mishandling of black characters in films made by white people are sometimes an occasion for eye-rolling, but after seeing Prisoners you might acknowledge he has a point.

And then the movie gears up for its gripping climax and becomes terrible. The filmmaking remains crystalline, immaculate, which makes the implausibilities much bitterer pills to swallow. Something seems to happen, and then no, it didn’t happen that way, and someone is in custody that the cops like for the crime, but then whoops, someone isn’t in custody any more, and someone goes alone to someone else’s house and at that point, by simple process of elimination, you wait for the big reveal, and it happens, and while you’re still trying to get your brain around the laughable disparity in size between the threatened party and the threatener, more stuff happens and people act stupidly and good god, is this going to be over any time soon? There are two movies at war here: a glum, wintry character drama from the Atom Egoyan mold (say, The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica) and a very-particular-set-of-skills thriller á la Taken. Guess which movie wins, but it’s not even fun on a Taken level, never mind as devastating as Sweet Hereafter. This movie is impeccably-made horseshit.

I Declare War

September 15, 2013

I-DECLARE-WAR-Press-Image-1.-This-should-go-in-guide.-Property-of-IDW-Films-Inc.Back in 1969, writer Sandra Scoppettone and artist Louise Fitzhugh put out a children’s book called Bang Bang You’re Dead. It’s something of a collector’s item now — so many parents and teachers loathed it that it kicked up a lot of controversy. Anyway, the book is a starkly brilliant parable about kids playing war and really hurting (though not killing) each other. The point, made none too subtly for a readership of little boys who liked to play war, was that war isn’t and shouldn’t be a game. It draws blood. I remembered the book while watching I Declare War, a bitter but paradoxically entertaining fantasia about a group of boys (and one girl) who play war out in the Canadian woods. The movie’s conceit is that we share the kids’ imaginations: when they pick up a toy gun or a branch and pretend it’s a real gun or a bazooka, that’s what we see. In visual movie language, they’re really shooting at each other, but only in their heads. No one gets killed, but a few illusions bite the dust.

Shrewdly, I Declare War almost immediately puts us on the side of P.K. (Gage Munroe) and his army. P.K. is small, blonde and tinsel-toothed, an unlikely figure to be a general, but he’s intelligent and has studied military history. He’s serious about winning war games — his base shows off all the flags he’s won. Putting us further in P.K.’s camp is his adversary, Skinner (Michael Friend), an unpleasant “spaz” who’s just out for revenge on P.K. and is willing to torture P.K.’s best friend Kwan (Siam Yu) when he takes Kwan prisoner. Therefore a variety of “soldiers” under both boys’ “command” are cannon fodder to settle an old score between two “nations.” You could read I Declare War as an allegory for just about any conflict the United States has gotten into, or any other country.

As the movie goes on, we realize something about the fair-haired P.K.: he’s a bit of a sociopath. He’s perfectly fine with sending his best friend off to be captured and possibly tortured a second time. We’ve been rooting for him because he’s smart and his enemy is emotionally volatile, but the movie ends up asking what, exactly, P.K. stands to “win” by asking his friends to sacrifice for his own glory. There’s another brain in the group, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), who plays a lot of chess and has her own agenda; she’s technically on Skinner’s side, but isn’t really loyal to him. Jess’s favored weapon is a crossbow, which serves as a perhaps unintentional critique of the heroine of The Hunger Games. The movie suggests that the people best at planning out war games aren’t the best human beings. Skinner, warped by the desire to make a mark in this faux-violent context, comes to seem less like a villain than a victim.

I Declare War has enough downtime to flesh out all the characters, strongly played by a variety of young actors mostly unknown outside Canada. But it flies by anyway, animated by the complexity of the chessboard. François Truffaut famously opined that it was impossible to make an anti-war movie, since war is so innately cinematic and exciting, and indeed the battles here are crisply staged for maximum lizard-brain satisfaction. At times the movie is like Red Dawn with a conscience. Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson (Lapeyre also wrote the script) perform a weirdly morally complicated contextual juggling act. We know it’s fake, both in and out of the film’s reality — we know the “grenades” are just balloons filled with red paint, the “guns” just wood and plastic — yet here we are, watching adolescents shooting at each other with what read visually as real bullets, and it’s fun. It’s fun in the old primate way it’s always been: the tension of the “good guys” taking cover while being shot at, the gratification of what Hannibal Smith called a plan coming together.

But it’s also not fun, and while nothing much is actually hurt here aside from some feelings, those feelings matter to us because the kids do. As you may have guessed, this is a story, like Lord of the Flies and Stand by Me, that involves kids but is meant more for adults. The language, appropriately enough, is pretty salty. Also like those stories, though, I Declare War is thematically appropriate for pre-teens, who use that language anyway, and who might best benefit from its message. If it were a young-adult book, it’d be stupidly challenged by offended parents all over the country. It’d face the same fear and loathing that greeted that Vietnam-era relic Bang Bang You’re Dead. Why do some authority figures not want children to know about the painful, unglamorous realities of war? Or have I just answered my own question?

Riddick

September 7, 2013

Karl-Urban-and-Vin-Diesel-in-Riddick-2013-Movie-Image-600x331The anti-hero Riddick, subject of three movies, an animated short, and numerous video games, is probably best suited to animated shorts and video games. I haven’t played the games, but I did enjoy Dark Fury, the 35-minute Peter Chung toon that served as a bridge between 2000’s Pitch Black and 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. Like Conan the barbarian, Riddick is a surly loner and killer who gets pulled into adventures wherever he travels. As played by Vin Diesel, Riddick is also a cold cod whose purpose in life seems to be avoidance. He’s always being pursued — by mercenaries, by Necromongers, by slithery creatures. His function is to send his pursuers abruptly to the next life and then swagger onward. Such a character might fare nicely on a weekly animated series for young adults (or in a monthly comic book, where Conan has thrived on and off for decades), but he doesn’t hold a live-action film together very strongly.

The title of Riddick’s new adventure, just straight-up Riddick, is likely meant to signify a new simplicity, or, rather, a throwback to the old simplicity of Pitch Black. After all, The Chronicles of Riddick was a cluttered and garish thing, with respected actors like poor Judi Dench nattering on about Necromongers or the Underverse while Vin Diesel scowled in the shadows, his silver corneae glowing like the eyes of a sullen cat. Riddick dispenses with the reheated fantasy elements of its predecessor and takes Riddick back to gritty sci-fi, pitting him against phallic, venomous critters and then against two competing bands of mercenaries. Along the way he raises a dingo-like puppy, and if you remember what generally happens to people or animals Riddick grows to care about, you’ll know not to get attached to the dingo-like puppy.

Riddick is leaner and meaner than Chronicles, but that doesn’t necessarily translate as “more fun.” Once again, as in Pitch Black, Riddick defends himself — and, incidentally, the motley group he happens to be thrown in with — from monsters. It feels pointless; by the end, Riddick is better off than he was at the start, but nothing in particular has happened to change his character. He’s the same growly deep-bass sociopath he was in Pitch Black thirteen years ago. At least in Dark Fury and Chronicles he had an androgynous girl, grown up to be a bitter woman warrior, to care about and to worry that she might end up like him. Riddick seems like a side adventure, and the events of the previous movie are blown off in a flashback that puts Riddick back at square one. We feel like idiots for having been asked to invest in the events of Chronicles and in the idea that Riddick had been elevated to a position of importance.

Diesel and series creator/director David Twohy were adamant that Riddick, like Pitch Black, carry an R rating, which allows for a bit of gore and a peekaboo scene that’s so baldly there for fans of Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff that all I could think about was Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz (who fantasized about tubbing with Sackhoff in an episode) wearing out the Blu-ray when it arrived at his home. Sackhoff plays a nerdboy’s idea of a lesbian, a tough chick who beats the crap out of men; her name is Dahl, which phonetically means every guy in the movie appears to be calling her “doll,” and that’s essentially what she is. Aside from Riddick — who spends much of the middle third of the film ominously offscreen — the character who gets the most screen time is Santana (Jordi Molla), the scruffy leader of one of the merc teams. Santana is a dick but at least has some personality; nobody else does.

Vin Diesel, an unabashed fantasy/sci-fi geek, keeps trying to make genre franchises happen. Babylon AD didn’t work for him, and the Riddick series has proceeded in fits and starts — it’s been nearly a decade since the last film, and Diesel, who turned 46 this summer, is very much not getting any younger. He puts a lot of physical effort into these meathead movies he does (Furious 6, for the record, was much more fun), and there’s a valid question as to how much longer he can continue to do so. Diesel started off promisingly — I urge you to seek out his 1994 short film Multi-Facial on YouTube so you won’t think I’m insane when I say he’s really a good actor — but he got sidetracked into dumb Saturday-night blockbusters for teens, and he perhaps needs to stop working out (and stop listening to his agent) and do some genuine acting again. Riddick, which by all indications will be a box-office disappointment, may put the kibosh on at least one going concern that has kept Diesel in lucrative stasis.