Friday, 24 October 2014

Cinema of Death: JOHN WICK and OUIJA


John Wick anticipates critics comparing it to a first-person video game shooter. Intercutting stylized live-action violence with a moment of a gamer thug’s obsession underlines the movie’s simplemindedness: Keanu Reeves is wronged, and, in rock video set pieces, kills those who wronged him, and then it ends. The only spoiler one can reveal is that it has no twists or surprises.

In a retrograde way, this is refreshing and it knows it.  Following years of barf-cam “verite” action scenes, and uncentered Marvel storylines, John Wick is defiantly straightforward with clear, easy-to-track bullet impacted head explosions and upper torso knife plunges.

After his girlfriend dies of an illness, Wick (Reeves), a former killing machine, plunges into depression. Gifted with a cute dog who he plays with for most of the film’s first half hour like he’s taking cues from Riddick for becoming a sympathetic psychopath, Wick’s life turns back around when goons murder his new pet. He relapses to his murderous ways, as stunt coordinators-turned-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski find a clever way of emotionally grounding their revenge narrative. We’re used to the disposability of human life in movies. Don’t fuck with dogs!

Reeves, a charming action star when permitted to be, is used at his most monosyllabic, disposing of bad guys and more than a few bystanders with cool posturing. In its combo barrenness and balletic kineticism, it’s both imitation Walter Hill and imitation John Woo, a movie that’s at once minimalist and maximalist.

First things first, John Wick isn’t as good as some people will try to tell you it is.

          But in a desperate climate where the best action films aren’t even getting theatrical distribution, there’s an urge to overpraise one that just gets it done. Its closest comparison is Robert Rodriguez’s series of violent rock music showdowns in Desperado. Wick’s just as brainless, but with less scatology. The recurrent joke of supporting characters shrugging off Wick’s barbarism feels cheap. And a nightclub fight centerpiece is reliant on ironic use of pop music against savagery, as though the movie’s audience isn’t familiar with Spring Breakers' “Everytime” montage, which expected its audience not to know Face/Off 's “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gunfight, which expected its viewers not to know the work of Kenneth Anger, which, in fairness, they mostly didn’t.

John Wick is a work of calculated affectation rather than of artists with this style in their bones. It happily contributes to cultural detritus when a smarter movie would comment upon it. But this must also be distinguished from The Raid’s pervy human degradation. At its own base level, John Wick’s murder fantasies feel detached from plausible bodily harm, and, for better or worse, are fun.

Mortality in John Wick is a heavy burden, until it isn’t. It’s murder as catharsis as spectacle.


Death is approached more solemnly, but without any more sensitivity in Ouija. Director Stiles White has a nice handle on widescreen horror imagery in the movie’s first half, building suburban folklore and dread through looming steadicam shots across white picket fences and wooden staircase railings. Ouija isn’t as grand and beautiful as last year’s The Conjuring, but, for a while, it breaks from the televisual standard of Paranormal Activity and Deliver Us From Evil, placing its strangely autumnal brown California within a nearby anamorphic universe to Craven’s Scream and Carpenter’s Halloween.

It’s in terms of narrative that it doesn’t provide anything to care about.


The oddest moment of Ouija is also the most stereotypical. Mourning teen Laine (Bates Motel’s Olivia Cooke) visits her school guidance counselor, who is intent on providing her with outlets to help deal with the death of two friends. She storms out telling him he has no idea what he’s talking about. Okay, except the movie wields no insight into teenage trauma that he doesn’t.

            Laine’s outburst simply feels like it should probably be a movie scene (you see it coming because, undoubtedly, you’ve seen it somewhere before), and that’s how Ouija operates. It exists in desperate imitation of a real movie. The young cast reaches for a dramatic heft the material doesn’t support. Its pretenses to reckoning and painful rites of passage are missing the emotional current that grounded the original Final Destination. Loss and death in Ouija is just an aftereffect of cheap jump scares. It’s as hollow as the motif of spectres with their mouths sewn shut, something writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White haven’t connected as an abstraction of the way adolescent pain is silenced. Here, it’s simply a cruel thing to happen in the middle of flossing.

And therein lies the basic problem with Ouija: it’s about nothing. The filmmakers instill this by making the dead friend who the leads try to contact a victim of her own Ouija Board experimentation. This bypasses the opportunity to employ horror-fantasy as a means of confronting the very real confusion and grief of teen suicide. Laine and her friends should stand up and face the adult and peer scrutiny toward their shared depression. Yet the movie doesn’t allow them the dignity or humanity to address it.

Almost everyone young or old feels misunderstood, but teen movies are one of the only venues through which Hollywood will articulate this commonly and (sometimes) believably. Teen movies about death are a staple for a simple reason that Ouija hasn’t considered—when every experience is a new one, it feels as though it’s now or never. At the precipice of life’s beginning is a fear that life will never arrive.

 The things teenagers feel aren’t trivial. It’s when the movies reduce them to meaningless traumas and freak-outs that there’s no room for understanding, only disengagement.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

1983


My friend Mark MacKenzie gave me a random year from which to make a Top 10 movies list. I got 1983. Mr. MacKenzie explained it was because he didn't understand 1983. 

In a way, he has a point. 1983 is a tougher than usual year from which to cull a top 10 list. It's sandwiched between 1982 and 1984, which had so many significant films. But here we go, anyway. Because it's the 30th anniversary of that year. Because we're hardcore. 


1) SCARFACE

Obviously.



I know Terms of Endearment won the Oscar, and I like that movie, but through the lens of time, immortality can be more accurately judged. 

Scarface is a  Reagan-era satire written as modern Shakespeare tragedy. It defines the '80s neon electro era, while serving as a lynchpin for all stories (real or fiction) of corrupt social climbers to follow. 


2) THE KING OF COMEDY



What seems, now at least, like an early look into the pathology of celebrity culture, Martin Scorsese tackles delusion and loneliness through the prism of a fame hungry aspiring comic. More uncomfortable than a lot of Scorsese films, since its central rage is never permitted expression, this is a highlight from when Scorsese made films that were wounded and personal.


3) CHRISTINE



I am glad to get 1983, if only to have Christine on this list, which is becoming my favourite John Carpenter movie. The treatment of teenage longing, and nerd Arnie's psychotic-obsessive arc is perfectly handled. Carpenter shoots a teen horror movie as a noir (and not with Brick affectation). The widescreen compositions are beautiful. In Detention, when that girl says she "took a dump on the windshield of Woodruff's Cadillac," that's a Christine reference.


4) THE OUTSIDERS


The director's cut ruins it, but in its initial version Francis Coppola's adaptation of S.E. Hinton's "boy's novel" creates abstract majesty from adolescence. It's a tough-kid movie, but shot and scored like it's Gone With the Wind. The agony of the present collides with the promise of the present. I prefer this to Rumble Fish.


5) SLEEPAWAY CAMP



I've already said too much: https://www.facebook.com/Thrillema/posts/418609091593769


6) RETURN OF THE JEDI



I saw this in the theatre when I was four. This movie is underrated. Inception should have had Ewoks!


7) MY BROTHER'S WEDDING



Black-on-black class conflict comes to a head between two brothers, leading up to a wedding. Charles Burnett's slicker but more obscure followup to his, recently obscure, Killer of Sheep is familial drama handled with poignance and insight.


8) L'ARGENT


Robert Bresson is one of the few filmmakers who I truly find challenging. Everything is shot and "acted" to distance viewers from the emotional pull of the material, and he tells a good portion of his narratives by skipping over the parts that progress the story. Occasionally, this method brings its own alchemy. As in Mouchette, Au hasard Balthasar, and others, in L'argent we process injustice intellectually, and then the emotions resonate.


9) RISKY BUSINESS



The most depressingly corporate teenagers ever captured on film. There was a time when I hated Risky Business for that reason (if you can find my The Girl Next Door review, I think I complain about it in there), but watching it again, I suspect the movie is appalled by it all, too. Anyway, Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay basically introduced me to sex. This is sharply observed in the writing, and atmospherically scored--a comedy about innocence corrupted before it's even been recognized.


10) NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION




The best of this series, and a furious damn movie skewering the All-American white family. Still, Chevy Chase remains sympathetic in his cluelessness. John Hughes scripts would chill out a bit later.

And here's me with the Private School soundtrack. That also came out in 1983, but didn't make it to this list for demographic reasons.



Friday, 7 June 2013

Waiting to Hate


"I didn't know it was by Shamamwhatever. I hate that director."

And that was the part of an After Earth after-movie convo I overheard. Granted, the marketing has done a good job of hiding director M. Night Shyamalan's involvement, and with good reason. When his name finally appeared at the front of the end credits, there was an audible groan.

It's obvious: the audience that night didn't like the movie, but can we get away from this bullshit condemnatory glee? Amongst those already aware that Shyamalan is the director of After Earth, the claws have been out, the prejudice and stupidity abundant.


After Earth is a mediocre film. But that's really all it is. The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern asking if it's "the worst movie ever made" not only shows a feeble grasp of syntax (that "made" after "ever" is self-evident), it's forcefully blind toward the movie being projected on screen.

Like any movie, After Earth should be divorced from buzz and prejudice, and viewed for what it is. It's a kid's boy scout adventure movie, a coming-of-age tale in the true sense in that it places teenage Kitai (Jaden Smith) through a series of survivalist tasks until his father (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) is able to tell him he's now a man. It's narrowly focused, but walks with more confidence than The Last Airbender, M. Night's last children's movie.

Part of the confusion is that in the milieu of summer blockbusters this delineation between kid movies and grown up movies is rarely present. In other words, almost all summer blockbusters are for kids, but After Earth upsets adults by never trying to hide it.

As a complete film experience, it's dramatically stilted (Shyamalan's typical whispered-monologue-long-takes don't quite suit this milieu), lacking in wit beyond its thematics, and too constrained in scope. Kitai is dropped into what looks like some Western American forest, but the dramatic impact of an adolescent trying to survive in brutal nature is never desperate or frightening enough. Shyamalan makes a movie about life in the wild, and then neglects to give it much liveliness.

So what's this got to do with M. Night hate? Simple, After Earth is a mere shrugger of a film that's being taken as evidence that its director is the once-trusted babysitter who you caught corrupting your dog.

Collectively, the Zeitgeist will often randomly decide it's time to hate someone, and try to downplay that it ever liked them. It happened to Michael Jackson for the fifteen years before he died. It happened to Oliver Stone in 2004, with the aggravatingly reviewed Alexander, his last film to approach greatness. It's happening to Tim Burton right now. This tendency is completely ignorant of what was and remains appealing about a given artist, denies shifting personal interests, and relishes in disdain. Shallow people need enemies.

All of these artists have identifiable tropes and styles, which makes the pile-on easier. There was no widespread grumbling that Louis Leterrier was back this summer with Now You See Me , even though The Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans were lacklustre. Leterrier has no plainly evident distinguishable style, so he isn't on anyone's radar. But because Shyamalan's made four movies from The Sixth Sense to The Village that had twist endings, negative assessment of him always incorporates this most obvious facet. And since his last few movies have been sub par, he's suddenly incapable of, and unwelcome to, redeeming himself.

I don't aim to celebrate Shyamalan (the only of his movies I really like are Unbreakable and Lady in the Water) so much as identify a movement in film-going that's based in know-it-all shortsightedness rather than thirsty open-mindedness.

Last week, leading up to After Earth's release, a writer for TV's Suburgatory tweeted, "I don't see how M. Night Shyamalan directing a story made up by Will Smith to get his kid more work could possibly be bad." Funny, especially if you're already in agreement with the author's disdain. But having addressed the M. Night prejudice enough, let's counter these other complaints.

1) Will Smith is a storyteller, and a pretty good one. If you picked up and enjoyed one of his more narrative-centric rap albums prior to 1991's Homebase, you know that.

2) Tailoring a story for your son to star in is certainly nepotism, and gives the young Mr. Smith an unfair advantage over other child stars, but it isn't that different than if the elder Smith were writing a story as a showcase for himself. It's just a redirection of ego, which is always a primary fuel in Hollywood anyway.

I've never watched Suburgatory because it's called Suburgatory, and I assumed it was another stereotypical look at how shallow and repressive suburban life is for creative people. But people tell me it's in fact good. Having never seen it, I've never condemned it on Twitter. Ya see? It's of no benefit going on record, and contributing to mass discourse, about how bad an artwork looks like it is probably going to be.

Also, I don't have cable.


It's a weird time for film criticism. The general public has largely taken over the reigns, many of them slaves to buzz who spread hype like insight. When we talk about Marvel Phase 2, we're not even talking about films anymore. We're talking about a corporate growth strategy. Even some critics prioritize being first to discover and generate hype for movies at Cannes, SXSW, and Sundance. That's fine. But when it's standardized, somewhere along the way unclouded insight and evaluation is compromised. Criticism has been uncomfortably conflated with consumerism, as has the audience's appreciation for movies. Groaning at the mention of Shyamalan, Stone or Burton is the common response because it's the accepted fashion.

So take Dr. Funkenstein's advice and blow the cobwebs out of your mind. And open your eyes. We deserve better movies, but we should also demand better of ourselves.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Film Jam


"I thought it delivered, but could have 20 minutes of air cut from it," I told a local filmmaker after stepping out of a franchise blockbuster.

"Try 40 minutes," he replied. "But I loved some of it."

Let me split the difference with Jason Eisener. Furious 6 is thirty minutes too long. And it's not like Furious 6 (that's the title in the credits, and it's what I'm calling it), at 130 minutes, is demanding some unheard of level of posterior numbness. It's merely longer than it's capable of handling (the movie, not your butt). Those extra 30 minutes don't make it more impactful or epic. They dilute a seriously badass 100-minute, character-driven action film.

This indulgence isn't a rarity. More and more, tentpole releases equate length with impact and importance.



First off, I'm a fan of the Fast/Furious series. I like that it takes itself seriously within a disreputable Roger Corman-inspired genre to the point where it's still fun but also believes in itself. I like that every new action scene tries to outdo the last. I've come to care about the soap opera moments and retcon fan service. Stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker barely show up in other movies anymore, but when they show up here, they feel like the biggest stars on Earth. I like that Detective Hobbs, played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, is visibly and continuously perspiring through these movies, while no one else breaks a sweat, and it's an unremarked upon character detail.

The series itself plays as an underdog story. Remember that the original film was expected to be buried in the summer of 2001 by the Sylvester Stallone/Renny Harlin racing movie Driven, a film nobody has seen post-Agent Cody Banks 2. Furious 6 was my most anticipated sequel this year, along with Riddick. (I wanted to include the fourth Mad Max film on that list so it doesn't just seem like I'm in love with Vin Diesel, but I guess that isn't until 2014. Oh well.)

Furious 6 knows itself and its audience very well, and plays to it hard. But the missing word "fast" in the onscreen title might count for something. It could stand to have the fat trimmed off it and be more aerodynamic.

The number one complaint talented filmmakers make about other films and film critics (and, let's not fake politeness, about audiences, too) is that they have little understanding of how movies work visually. It makes some sense. If you're a critic, you're a writer, and are used to thinking verbally. And it's rare, or just takes effort, to get both brain areas working at once.

But what's even more unremarked upon is the disregard of film rhythm.



Movies don't exist just so you can rock out. But as a viewer, I need to be captured in their grooves. Hold the wrong notes for too long, and you lose the melody. Overdo it on sauce, and you drown the spaghetti.

The problem is most apparent in big movies that aspire to excitement. Michael Bay's "small movie" (IE. it has no Transformers in it) Pain & Gain was another unwieldy one. It could have made a slick and nasty crime thriller at 90-minutes. At 129, it reached for too much and forfeit a point-of-view. Peter Jackson is the master at pro-mass anti-rhythm indulgence. His 2005 King Kong remake is twice as long as it needs to be, and then hit DVD in an even longer version. And extending The Hobbit, which is shorter than any individual Lord of the Rings book, to three parts and nine hours values length above all else.

Commercial prospects of course influence the way movies are paced. When DVD sales were still an important factor, comedies would be released in EXTREME AND UNCUT versions, which frequently translated to EXCESSIVE AND POORLY CUT versions. The "uncut" DVD of the terrific Dave Chappelle's Block Party is so hastily assembled it actually repeats a scene. With comedy longer-is-better was routinely problematic, throwing the timing and momentum off in Judd Apatow's already indulgent films. And those movies set the template. This summer's big upcoming comedy hopefuls, the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy The Heat and the Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson The Internship are both two hours, something studios would have frowned upon fifteen years ago.

There's no place for expressions that land between short and feature length. A 50-minute movie (the ideal length of Spring Breakers) is hard to program for even a festival screening.



"Christopher Nolan has rhythms. You just don't like his rhythms," a friend explained about The Dark Knight Rises. There may be some truth to that. I can't get with every beat. And I'm not asking every movie to do away with "slow parts." I have nothing against movies that know what to do for three hours. I'm saying too many films are prioritizing their degree of content over sustaining interest through a flow of tightly assembled parallel and contrasting pieces. And the experience of these movies is suffering.

After the first Lord of the Rings movie caught the Christmas '01 zeitgeist, other movie fantasies decided to whip it out and compare size. Real fatigue hit me at Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, a brilliant display of 2006 CG creature effects, and one of the most thoughtlessly paced major films ever. As the middle part in (what was once planned as only) a trilogy, it occurred to me that the story wasn't going to complete itself, needn't have any signposts toward resolution, and could conceivably keep piling on more whimsical pirate-stuff for an eternity. I lost my glasses on the way out of that screening, which is a strange thing to happen. I can only blame that film's effect on my temporal-spatial reality.

I get it, movies are expensive to go see. But the bang-for-your-buck ideal has been poorly construed. People want movies that are mind-blowing experiences, that will allow them to visit the world of that film and partake in something enthralling. They don't just want movies that will eat up the most of their time.

This isn't an argument that every movie should feel like Detention. That was ADD by design, and the world needs its slow dance numbers, too.

In many ways, the ones outlined in the second major paragraph, Furious 6 is the most satisfying blockbuster so far this year. There are no scenes that should obviously be stripped from it. It's just that many of them come with a lot of dead space. A mid-movie conversation in an auto-shop with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is spread over two rooms so that the same character follows her, gets her attention a second time, and continues the conversation he just started. A joke wherein Hobbs (The Rock) and Tej (Ludacris) partake in the comeuppance of a rich snob by requesting that he disrobe needs to be speedy, but the movie stops dead to display its comic wit.



I realize that our attention spans aren't what they used to be. When The Exorcist opened in 1973, viewers weren't sure if they saw or only imagined flashes of Satanic faces on screen. Today, our brains have been so warped and rewired by the pace of MuchMusic, MTV, video games and YouTube, it's impossible not to clearly see those images. We can process more information than ever, and perhaps retain less of it. A youth-appeal movie like Furious 6 somehow understands this only on occasion.

Let's just say I liked the movie enough that I wish it had the faith to be less generous. Quit delivering more of what no one needs, and find your tune.

Movies are music.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The 20 Best Movies of the Decade

20) Kill Bill, Volume 1 (Quentin Tarantino)



19) Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)



18) The Prestige (Christopher Nolan)



17) George Washington (David Gordon Green)



16) The Company (Robert Altman)



15) Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Koreeda)



14) Apocalypto (Mel Gibson)



13) The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola)



12) The White Diamond (Werner Herzog)



11) In America (Jim Sheridan)



10) 2046 (Wong Kar Wai)



9) War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg)



8) Hero (Zhang Yimou)



7) The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson)



6) Lilya 4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson)



5) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)



4) The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel Coen)



3) Munich (Steven Spielberg)



2) Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)



1) AI Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg)


ADDENDUM:

Due to perceived conflict of interest, I no longer opine on Torque in any critical forums. Suffice it to say, it has impacted my decade significantly.