Thursday, June 30, 2011

Transformers 3

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Dir. don't make me do this
Starring Shia LaBeouf, John Turturro, Frances McDormand, various others, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Cullen, Alan Tudyk, and we're all just going to agree to forget John Malkovich was in this, OK?

Elephants --lets face it-- look cool. They're big, they got those huge tusks and the prehensile trunk, they sometimes get into a crazed sex frenzy and tear shit up. They're cute when they're little. They look impressive when they travel in herds, traversing gorgeous terrain. They're fairly rare if you don't live in areas where they naturally occur, and when given the opportunity to see one I'm usually fairly excited.

But, at the end of three two-and-a-half hour films, you just find yourself asking, “So, is this all there is? Just shots of elephants?”

Yes, I gave in to my darkest impulses, the most shameful and disheartening side of myself, and went and watched TRANSFORMERS 3. Don't worry, I paid for CARS 2 and snuck in (in what I hope will be a down payment towards Pixar making a film I want to see a little more than CARS 2) but still, I willingly opened my eyes and invited the devil inside. The human eye is composed of 33 distinct parts, and for most people is their primary sensory organ. It is so complex that some people argue that its stunning perfection proves the existence of the divine. And I put Michael Bay in mine.

Michael Bay believes an elephant and an explosion make a movie. I'm simply not convinced that he's correct. Eventually, I'm going to want the elephant to do something, or mean something, or feel something. I want the explosion to threaten something, or change something.

There's plenty of obvious things Michael Bay does poorly which don't really need exploration here. Obviously the script, the acting, the --shudder-- “humor”, anything having anything at all to do with human beings, the awkward politics, the awful soundtracks, the cheeseball mawkishness. I don't really believe in this idea that we need to settle for less in these big expensive movies, but by this time Bay has a pretty consistent track record and you can't really claim to be surprised. But he's supposed to make up for that by blowing shit up real good. I'd like to try and make the case that even here, in the dubious best of the series, he doesn't quite deliver the spectacle that you want. There are two basic reasons why, which I feel are so far under-examined, and a worthwhile way to ask the question of why some action movies succeed where these fail.

The first is the fact that while all elephants are cool to look at, your ability to watch them for an extended period greatly increases if they're doing different things. Surprisingly, the same is true for giant computer animated toys. You want your robots to fight, of course, but jeez, it's been three movies now and all they do is fight. And their fighting is not particularly interesting, except that its done by robots. It turns out that after you've seen giant metal dudes ponderously slugging each other for a few minutes, the novelty wears off a little. Here, in the service of 3-D, Bay finally pulls his camera back a little, dials down the ADD editing, and lets us actually see what's happening, which is at least an improvement on the last two. But it turns out that once you get to see it, its only moderately interesting and certainly not worth building a two-and-a-half hour film around. Elephants rutting is pretty cool, a nifty display of the raw power and dramatic focus in these huge beasts. But by the time you've gotten to the fifth or so scene of it, you're kinda hoping something a little memorable is gonna happen with it.

Yeeeahh, if we could just make everything shitty, that would be great.
That's the problem, as I see it. Technology has reached a point where any conceivable scenario can be realistically portrayed, and Michael Bay has the money to make it happen. He's limited only by his imagination. But it turns out that's a pretty severe limitation. There's hardly a single interesting concept, gimmick, or set piece in this entire trilogy, and so it ends up being about as memorable as any given punch in a rock-em-sock-em robots game (I'm sure I'm not the first person to make that comparison, but I actually played the game yesterday in preparation for this review so I feel I have a certain legitimacy in saying that). With nothing unique and thrilling to get us excited, the action all runs together into a gray, monotone mess of whirring gears.

Which brings me to my other problem: Structure. Bay has no sense of it. His films have no rhythm, no build. They don't go anywhere, they don't crescendo. Of course there's no storyline, but even the action scenes don't climax. The final fight isn't longer or more intense than any other fight, there's not particularly more at stake, and it seems like it could have fit equally well anywhere in the film. It's all turned up to 11, but it just means that none of it has much impact. All Bay knows how to do is shout, and after awhile it just doesn't have any impact anymore. It's kind of a slog, truth be told.

So despite the millions of dollars which clearly ended up on screen, there just isn't much here. It's the equivalent of watching stock footage of car crashes. You can watch a little and find it exciting and visually arresting, but by the time you've watched it a dozen context-free times, the rewards considerably diminish.

I mean, there are a few nice things to be said about it. The script somewhat resembles some kind of basic narrative this time, if you don't stop and think about it for even a second. It's a little more serious and there seems like a little more at stake, which helps rope you into the fights a little more than before. There's a few genuinely nifty sequences – the bit where a human gets tossed out of a transforming car into the air, only to be caught by the robot again and reincorporated into the car (all done in 3-D digital slow motion) is a pretty cool shot which I don't think I've seen anywhere else. There's a kind of tunneling worm robot or vehicle or something which seems to be associated with this one cyclops transformer, I don't know, maybe not, but its pretty cool to watch. The bit with it tunneling into an ever-slanting office building with some humans inside is probably the one sequence in the film which comes close to original, although needless to say it has nothing to do with anything. The wingsuit sequence is also a great idea, someone should put that in a real movie someday. The destruction of Chicago is admittedly pretty epic, the production work on the effects and sets is top notch and it has a nice apocalyptic feel. The cinematography is sometimes quite pretty in that sleazy, car-commercial Michael Bay kind of way.

Some of the cast ends up limping away with dignity intact. Frances McDormand of all people, despite being saddled with some painfully embarrassing dialogue, sells it like a champ and mostly manages to avoid humiliating herself. John Turturro somehow manages to make his Jar Jar Binks character feel a little more fun this time around, I hope he can begin looking people in the eye again after this. He gets some welcome help from Alan Tudyk as his sidekick, who against all odds creates the only endearing character in the entire series. Leonard Nimoy manages to add enough gravitas to his poorly written role that he at least seems like a suitable opponent for Peter Cullen's voice. And poor Buzz Aldrin manages to escape with the majority of his and our national dignity intact, despite being patronizingly told by a giant cartoon toy that it's an honor to meet him.

Less successful are Hugo Weaving (again given nothing at all to do as the film's apparent villain) Tyrese and that generic white guy as unnecessary soldiers, some other white guy as a villain, the eye candy girlfriend, and Bill O'Reilly.

Disastrous, unfortunately, goes to John Malkovich this time around, who apparently didn't learn from John Turturro the first one that acting as if what you're doing is funny does not, in fact, make it funny. Even more embarrassing is Ken Jeong, of whom the less is said the better. LaBeouf is this time around inexplicably saddled with a truly unpleasant character; an unholy cocktail of entitlement, insecurity, and sad sack whining which he tries fruitlessly to make tolerable.

Also apparently James Remar plays the voice of a character named Sideswipe (jeez, did he spend all that Dexter money already?), Frank Welker plays two (?) characters named Shockwave and Soundwave (I think Shockwave was the cyclops, because people kept pointing to him and saying his name as if it meant something, but its odd because I don't remember him talking at all) and John DiMaggio reprises his role as Bender (nah, that would have actually been funny and hence has no place in this film. He plays a character named Leadfoot.)

I dunno, man. The thing isn't as stunningly bad as its predecessors, but in a way that just makes it bad in a more mundane, boring way. The fundamental flaws in the last two were kind of obscured by the aggressive, insane and borderline surreal layers of flaws which actually made them (the second, especially) sort of memorable. This one's closer to a real movie, but it's still so far away from a good movie that it's almost a step back. The one thing that made them interesting was how unapologetically awful they were, and this one is professional enough to reveal how completely empty is is of anything interesting. If you truly believe simply seeing giant robots punch each other on screen is enough to sustain your interest for nearly three hours, the film does deliver that. Me, I think I'm gonna break out my PLANET EARTH DVDs. Now those guys know how to make me care about an elephant.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Nights of Cabiria

Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Dir. Frederico Fellini
Starring Guilietta Masina, Francois Perier, Franca Marzi, Amedeo Nazzari

Kids, I got something to tell you. Something you’re not going to like. I’m not proud of it, but I can’t deny who I am. I know you hold me in high esteem, and if you wish to avoid having your illusions shattered and watching as your heroes crumble before your eyes, I suggest you turn back now and never think of this again. But here goes. I don’t really like the films of Frederico Fellini.

I’m sorry.

I mean, it’s a little complicated. I obviously recognize his mastery of the craft, and I applaud his bold commitment to his own unique vision. But I can never really get all that invested in the content, especially his later films, which are richly articulated examinations into the subconscious of an individual who is worried about a lot of stuff that just doesn’t mean much to me. It’s a personal thing. Fellini is just so fixated on his hang ups about sex, relationships, and religion, and it all seems a little needless to me. I got plenty of my own issues, but those three things I feel like I got a good handle on. I feel like I could clear up his problems pretty easily just by pointing out that A) There is no God, B) Sex is awesome and you should have as much of it as you can as long as you don’t hurt anyone, and C) Just be yourself and try to have fun with the people in your life.

There, see? Issues resolved. Now you can make a film as gorgeous as 8 ½ about something which is actually interesting, like a coven of lesbian vampires fighting a robot. Maybe in space. Although Italy would be ok, too, I don’t think I’ve seen one of those set in Italy (I bet one exists, though.)

Anyway, Fellini’s films are always a visual treat, but as they get more abstract later in his career there’s not a lot of narrative of character center to hold onto and if you don’t really get into his central themes they’re a bit of a commotion about nothing.

So, having flippantly dismissed the acknowledged masterpieces of one of cinema’s towering geniuses, I have to say that I sort of loved NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, which may be the first Fellini film I’ve seen which combines his surreal eye with the warmth of character from his neorealist period. It’s pretty much an amazing, mesmerizing, heartbreaking, sumptuous, overwhelming, immersive, inspiring cinematic experience which might or might not remind me or someone else why they fell in love with cinema in the first place.

NIGHTS OF CABIRIA is the story the titular Cabiria (Guilietta Masina, who by a remarkable coincidence is also married to Fellini) who works as a prostitute in one of Rome’s seedier districts. Actually its hardly a story, in the conventional sense – more like a series of vignettes as we follow Cabiria through her encounters with various people in her life (though interestingly, none of them are clients). Some encounters are comic, some are heartbreaking, some banal, and not all even entirely revolve around Cabiria. Fellini takes advantage of the freedom his anti-narrative allows by allowing his focus to drift a little, and is rewarded with rich visual haikus full of earthy detail. It’s not just that his compositions are effortlessly gorgeous; it’s that they carefully mine each image and face for hints of its soul. At this moment in career, with one foot in neorealism and the other in surrealism, Fellini manages to be both penetrating and poetic, carefully allowing the truths to reveal themselves but not yet smothering the world with his own personality. Even without its central character, Fellini’s keen eye creates a deeply felt portrait of a time and place.

With its central character, though, it’s a classic. Guilietta Masina, who starred in several other Fellini films early in his career (notably LA STRADA and THE WHITE SHIEK, where she has a brief appearance as Cabiria) creates one of cinema’s most unique and complex female characters, bar none. Her Cabiria is a raging maelstrom of contradictions: she’s both naïve and world-weary, tragic but inspiring, brave but terrified, sexual but timid, clever but foolhardy. She’s been hurt a lot, and struggles to keep herself closed off enough to protect herself even as she can’t quite give up hope that things could somehow be different. There’s a winning cheerfulness to the character, but there’s a profound sadness dancing just beneath the surface. She seems frustratingly naïve and even abrasive sometimes, but then there’s a certain careful tentativeness to her which suggests that maybe it’s a survival mechanism. But she’s more than complex. Rarely does a character seem so exhilaratingly alive on screen, so deeply and thrillingly engaged with the world. When she thinks no one is looking, she does this little dance which –aside from being beyond adorable – speaks more than dialogue ever could to the infectious enthusiasm which makes the character so endearing even in the face of her flaws and tragedies.

And she’s funny. Really, really funny. Her body language and expressions are hilarious and sometimes fairly broad, but they make perfect sense for the character. If she has a comparable cinematic peer, it can only be Chaplin’s tramp character, another perfect embodiment of comedy and pathos expressed with a similar physicality. It’s almost a shame NIGHTS OF CABIRIA has more than comedy on its mind, because there’s a comedic genius in the performance which I think gets undervalued in the face of the film’s more tragic themes. (Actually I just looked her up and apparently she’s “often” called the “female Chaplin,” so I guess I’m not the only one who thinks so. Damn, I was kinda feeling proud of that one.)

Anyway, going into more detail about the film and its events doesn’t seem all that necessary. It’s not exactly a film that has a lot of stuff to discuss; it’s a film to experience, and one which has an uncommonly deep connection to the human condition, even if it doesn’t have a lot of big right-brained ideas to write essays about. Fellini’s mastery of his craft speaks for itself, but it’s Masina who really makes this one a classic with their fiercely funny portrayal. That’s a pretty potent combination of director and actor right there, and the results are really something special. No offense to Martin Lawrence and Michael Bay intended.

I’m thinking that I may have underestimated this Fellini guy. He just may have what it takes after all, he might be one of those talents to watch that they talk about, I don’t know, we’ll have to see. Bring on JULIET OF THE SPIRITS!

PS: I should also point out that another important person here was Dino De Laurentiis, who put his own money up for this film after no one else would finance a film about prostitutes. As a major fan of his work and his granddaughter, I would like to say that a career that includes Fellini, EVIL DEAD, David Lynch, BARBERELLA, David Cronenberg, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, Igmar Bergman, and the whale-centric JAWS rip-off ORCA is a career worth honoring with excessive drinking.    

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Album review: World/Inferno Friendship Society - "The Anarchy and the Ecstasy"

World/Inferno Friendship Society
“The Anarchy and the Ecstasy” (2011)

There’s an old and seldom used adage which goes, “It’s hard out there for a dapper anarcho-punk carnival barker costumed weirdo.”  We’ve all noticed this at some point in our lives but I’m betting no one knows it better than Jack Terricloth, front man and songwriter of the World/Inferno Friendship Society, a loose punk cabaret orchestra carnival sideshow collective which has been steadily making music for a small but gradually expanding audience since 1996. Things have looked better for old Jack, even though the band is making some headway opening shows for the likes of the Bouncing Souls. Since their last album --2007’s Peter-Lorre-centered masterpiece “Addicted to Bad Ideas”—they’ve lost three key members, including guitarist Lucky Strano (whose distinct high-tone guitar warble is badly missed) and drummer Brian Viglione (probably WIFS’s biggest name, due to his other job as the drummer for the Dresden Dolls). The difficulty in sustaining a group of 10 or more musicians (let alone making any money at all!) seems to have taken its toll on the band and on Jack himself, and making a new album with a fraction of the members of the previous album didn’t inspire a ton of confidence (neither does the cheap-looking cover art and album design).
        But what do you know, it turns out old Jack still has some fight left in him, or at least enough to make “The Anarchy and The Ecstasy” a worthwhile endeavor. Yes, the band’s mammoth sound is somewhat reduced here, and the production sounds a bit stifled and muddy compared to the wild dynamics of their last two. Rather than accepting this handicap, though, Jack and company have gone and changed up their game, creating a surprisingly warm and accessible album which may be their most consistent – though not their best – yet.
       The album begins pleasantly enough with the mid-tempo cabaret stomp “I Am Sick of People Who Are Sick of My Shit.” It’s hard not to speculate that this is a jab at his former cohorts who abandoned ship, but the song’s ingratiatingly clever wit prevents it from starting the album on a sour note. As usual, it’s a flawlessly constructed attack of horns, pianos, guitars, multiple vocals, and punk percussion, but it’s hard not to notice that it lacks both the manic energy and the overwhelming force of their best work. There’s no way to recapture the huge sound of their former, larger incarnation with a mere 6-9 players, and as result their attempts to recreate that operatic musical drama on tunes like “Canonize Philip K. Dick OK” and “They Talk of Nora’s Badness” sound regrettably anemic by comparison. Perhaps realizing this, “Anarchy” finds Jack in a more personable, confessional, and thoughtful mood than any previous album, and the songs suit the current line-up much better.

       In fact, ditching some of the more outrageous musical adventurism reveals an appealing pop sensibility which up til now remained hidden beneath the theatrics. Were it not for some lightly jazzy touches towards the end, “Thirteen Years without Peter King” might well be a Billy Joel tune, with its hooky piano and melancholy pop chorus. “The Politics of Passing Out” would not be at all out of place on a 70’s Bruce Springsteen album, complete with spritely saxophones and a by-the-books rock structure. The acoustic “The Mighty Raritan” finds Jack unexpectedly waxing nostalgic about his (or someone’s) childhood to a disarmingly sweet tinkling piano. It’s a surprisingly earnest moment for a guy who usually hides behind cheeky quips and obscure references.

        That’s all well and good, and the songwriting is as strong as ever. The problem is that earnestness doesn’t suit World/Inferno as well as anarchy does. Jack’s voice is an exaggerated theatrical wail, and it works much better shouting suitably dogmatic anarchist edicts (“You don't change the world by sitting in your office / Sitting in your office is changing you!” he sings on “Canonize Philip K. Dick OK” – though the Koch brothers probably differ with him on that sentiment) than it does with the more confessional lyrics to “Raritan” (where i was nurtured and perverted / by women free-thinking / and hoarse voices in love”). They’re good lyrics, but do you really want Jello Biafra telling you how he’s feeling? World/Inferno may just be too ridiculous to quite gel with heart-on-your-sleeve sentiment. Outrageousness and strident idealism play to their strengths; emotional excursions neuter them a bit and diminishes the things which make them most unique.  And of course, it’s hard not to miss the manic frenzy of their best tunes, like “Brother of the Mayer of Bridgewater” off “Red Eyed-Soul” or the wild swing avalanche of  “Ich erinnere mich an die Weimarer Republik” from “Addicted to Bad Ideas.” “Disarming Smile” has a pleasing gallop to it, but it’s only an average tune and everything else seems oddly chaste – nothing really drags, but for a group of outsider punk anarchists they don’t seem to cut loose with quite the vigor they once did. The closest they get to sounding like the best version of themselves comes near the end, with the heady drama of “The Apple Was Eve” which finally manages to regain the heft and the wild abandon of their previous work.   

            Still, the album is by no means a failure. It feels like an odd sidestep for them, but you gotta give some credit for bravely exploring some new terrain (though for the record I can’t imagine what the fuck Terricloth is talking about when he goes on about this album having strong bluegrass touches. The closest thing to bluegrass on here is the vaguely honky-tonk shuffle of “Lean Times for Heroes” and even then only the verse really plays it up). Whatever you may think of his hard-line idealism, it’s hard not to be a little inspired by Terricloth and Company's commitment to their lifestyle and their unique sound, and their consummate musicianship and songwriting skills are undisputable. It’s nice to know that however lean the times may be for our heroes, they haven’t lost the faith. But here’s hoping that something pisses em off a little before they write the next chapter in the saga.  

Special Note: World/Inferno are playing the Rock and Roll Hotel on H street in Washington DC Sunday, June 26th and you’d have to be a damn fool to not go to this one. They’re one of the wildest live acts out there today. See ya there.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Plague Dogs

Plague Dogs (1982)
Dir. Martin Rosen
Starring (voices) John Hurt, Christopher Benjamin, Nigel Hawthorne, and Patrick Stewart has a small role at the end.  

PLAGUE DOGS begins with one of the most unnerving and disturbing sequences I’ve ever seen put to film. Things are murky and claustrophobic, out of focus. You’re disoriented and off-balance, looking for any point of reference. Casting about frantically, you can make out the surface of the water above. Breaching the surface, you’re confronted with the masked visages of doctors in lab coats, staring down from beneath a blinding light. To your horror, they offer no help but instead chit chat back and forth about how long you’ll last. Frantically scratching at the glass walls around you, you discover your feet can find no purchase there, that you’re doomed to struggle in the water until you drown. Finally, with no strength left, you give in and sink to your death, only to be plucked out of the water and shocked back to life, to face it again the next day.

The victim of this hellish living nightmare is a large animated black lab mix named Rowf, who awakens in his cage the next day hardly able to distinguish the nightmare of his reality from the nightmares which plague his sleep. That’s a fuck of a way to start an animated movie about talking dogs, but this one ain’t playing gentle.

I would have had an idea of what I was getting into if I had known that director Martin Rosen had previously adapted another of Richard Adams’ books into a fucking disturbing animated film about anthropomorphized cuddly critters: 1978’s nightmarish WATERSHIP DOWN. Watching the fluffy bunnies with celebrity voices rip each other to bloody shreds with their horrible Nosferatu teeth was up there with my most defining childhood traumas, and probably has something to do with my cautious relationship with NIGHT OF THE LEPUS. But it’s not really the frank depiction of violence which makes Rosen’s adaptations of Adams’ stories so affecting to me – it’s his bleak style and straightforward portrayal of the darkness and crushingly high stakes of the animal world.

PLAGUE DOGS is not as much about narrative as WATERSHIP DOWN. Rowf (voiced with resolute dignity Christopher Benjamin) and his friend Snitter (voiced with a heartbreaking mix of fragile optimism and deep melancholy by John Hurt) are living a surreal existence of unending and (to them) inexplicable torment in a laboratory, when a chance circumstance allows them a shot at escape. Through the incinerator, past the stiff bodies and gray ashes of their deceased friends (and Tim Robbins thought he had it bad!), they’re able to make it to the outside. But once out, they have no idea what to do. Snitter, who feels personally responsible for the death of his former master which led to his incarceration, thinks they need to look for a new master. Rowf is less sure. But neither of them knows what to do, where to go, or anything about living in the outside world. So the rest of the film is about them aimlessly wandering the Scottish countryside, trying to stay alive while the noose grows inexorably tighter around them.

In some ways, it’s not so much a traditional narrative as it is a darkly absurdist play, kind of a ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dogs.’ Rowf and Snitter speak with human voices and can reason and make plans, but the movie carefully keeps reminding us that they’re dogs, with the perspective that implies. They have no concept of why they were being held captive, or what the outside world is like (“Why is this happening? I’m a good dog!” Rowf implores). They never quite comprehend why eating the local sheep evokes violent reactions from the local farmers, nor do they have any idea that the local media has learned that they may have become contaminated with Bubonic Plague during their escape, resulting in an all-out hunt for their heads. Their bafflement at their predicament and their existential angst as they struggle to find direction defines the absurd tragedy of their existence, and the quiet dread the lightly impressionistic animation and direction summons suits it well. Just like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it’s clear to these dogs that powerful forces are moving all around them, but they’re just as unknowable and arbitrary.

To further drive home this point, Snitter has recently undergone a brain operation which confuses his already meager ability to distinguish between past and present. He begins the film with an unshakable energy and optimism, pulling Rowf along with his plan to escape the lab. As things go on, however, the “flies and spider webs’’ in his head gradually become inseparable from reality, trapping him in a twilight zone of bad memories and worse reality and making him an unstable liability to his companion. We occasionally catch a glimpse of his reality, as objects and events from the past intrude on the present in ghostly high-contrast black and white. It’s genuinely chilling.

I am a great believer in the medium of animation, and constantly frustrated that modern filmmakers seem to consider it a childish tool. Here, expert animators create the exact proper balance of surrealism and literal representations, carefully making the dogs’ movements expressive and authentic but allowing for moments of seamless abstraction. The landscapes always have a kind of expressionistic quality, with strong brush strokes and a perpetually dreamy gray sky, but when the occasion calls for it the animation can turn to wild stylizations to represent extreme emotional states. This fluid stylistic quality perfectly captures the subjective reality of the unusual protagonists, while the hand-drawn animation means that every movement the dogs make is rife with meaning and personality, but still completely believable in the context of this world. It’s stubbornly unflashy, but a perfect example of how to use animation to tell an adult story more effectively than live-action possibly could.

(I should note, I watched the 85-minute version available on Netflix, but apparently there’s a longer 103 minute cut out there in Australia or some fool place which includes a few more explicit bits [Wikipedia says you get to see a dismembered human corpse which the dogs have eaten, wow. But the version I saw implies it strongly enough and that’s probably even weightier than actually seeing it]. Hardcore fans on the internet swear by the longer version, but I can’t really imagine it much improving the experience, which in the 85-minute version seems to fully develop its atmosphere, characters and themes and in no way feels truncated or incomplete)

As in WATERSHIP DOWN, director Rosen has created something truly unique and memorable, exploring deep-running existential fears from a startlingly distinct perspective. He’s not at all afraid to delve into the darkness of his scenario, but also deftly avoids exploiting it for shock value – instead he trusts the power of his images and the slow, desperate build of the story to work its way into your head and stick there. Netflix calls it a “compelling case for animal rights,” but fortunately it’s much more interesting than that. In the hands of Rosen, it becomes a film about the fragility of existence in a hard and incomprehensible world. Rosen only directed one other film besides his two Adams adaptations, an out-of-distribution live action film about rural Montana humans called STACKING. But even if that one is as tepid as the trailer makes it look, I think he can rightfully claim a place among the all-time animation greats based on the remarkable power and unique vision of his work in PLAGUE DOGS.

06/29/2011 PLAGUE DOGS Update! It turns out a very young Brad Bird worked on this film as an animator, which is cool enough that it deserves a mention.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Paul (2011)
Dir. Greg Mottola
Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman, and Seth Rogen

PAUL is one of those odd movies which seems to think it’s a different film than it actually is, but kind of works anyway in spite of itself. Basically, it’s a simple road trip narrative about two British nerds who pick up a wayward extraterrestrial (the titular Paul) and have to sneak him through the American Southwest so he can get back home. It seems to think it’s a wacky lowbrow comedy, and its stuffed with slapstick gimmicks and jokes about Alien balls and whatnot. But actually it’s closer to a kind of Spielbergian road trip movie about this unlikely group coming together and bonding. It’s only fitfully funny, but it has an endearing earnestness and good heart which keeps things engaging. The best moments are the quieter ones, where the film reveals a surprisingly rich, tender relationship between its characters.

Pegg and Frost do fine with their characters, but generously give most of the best material to their co-stars. The Gray Alien (conspiracy veterans should recognize him as a Zeta Reticulan) design of Paul’s face limits his ability to emote and cripples most comic possibilities in his expression, but Seth Rogen manages to make him endearing anyway, imparting his voice with a surprisingly world-weary slacker wisdom. Once Kirstin Wiig enters the picture as a one-eyed Jesus freak, though, she walks off with the movie. She gets most of the best jokes and the most compelling narrative arc, and makes the most of it, demonstrating again what a rare comedic talent she is. There are some awkward moments (director Greg Mottola of SUPERBAD fame is nowhere near the fastidious scene builder that Edgar Wright is) and the whole thing threatens to go off the rails in a haze of increasingly unnecessary references to other films, but the film and its characters are just barely likeable enough to squeak by with dignity intact. It’s a minor effort, but its old-fashioned charm is undeniable.   

Monday, June 13, 2011

Emperor of the North

Emperor of the North a.k.a Emperor of the North Pole (1973)
Dir. Robert Aldrich
Starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Ernest Borgnine’s Crazy Eyes, Keith Carradine

How are you going to say no to a movie with that cast, from the director of THE DIRTY DOZEN? You might think you could hold out because you’ve never heard if it before, but when I tell you Ernest Borgnine has a huge hammer that he uses to crack open the skulls of hobos foolish enough to try and catch a ride on his train you’ll have to relent and admit that you’re on your way home to watch it right now. That’s the magic of the written word, right there. Pen is mightier than the sword, although not necessarily stronger than Borgnine flinging his goddam hammer at your fragile brain-pan.

This is an enjoyable and leisurely study in unassuming badassery from Robert Aldrich, and while it’s not quite as overwhelming as it might have been with that cast, it’s obviously worth the time for anyone who cares about decency. Lee Marvin plays a venerable hobo of some distinction among his peers named A #1, who is goaded into the ultimate show of hobo prowess: catching a ride on a train conducted by the notably anti-hobo Shack (Borgnine, positively unable to contain his enthusiasm for murder). Carradine plays a boastful greenhorn hobo named Cigaret, full of false bravado but without the experience to back it up. As Cigaret gets in over his head, A#1 reluctantly steps in as his mentor.

In this time before hobos had shotguns, they couldn’t do much to change the society of their Depression-era Northwest home, but they could at least stick it to the man. The film plays their antics as an effort to find some pride and humanity, and it adds a little understated emotional heft to a film which is basically about two guys trying to ride on a train without another guy seeing them. Clocking in at a minute shy of two hours, it’s a leisurely film with a surprisingly meandering plot, but it wisely keeps Marvin and Carradine at its center. Marvin is as cool as you’d imagine, quiet and confident. Carradine (in his second film and first starring role) grates a little as the brash younger man. It’s an irritating performance and character, but I think intentionally so. We occasionally catch a glimpse of the frightened kid behind the too-loud braggart, and it helps give the performance a touch of desperation and come off more sympathetic.

The odd thing about the film is that it seems weirdly unaware of its own darkness. The aggressively whimsical musical cues and sunny, gorgeous composition would lead us to believe this is a lark about hobo hijinks on the open road, but the content of the story is quite disturbing. Borgnine isn’t just an uptight authority figure to knock off his high horse -- he’s a homicidal psychopath just barely maintaining a thin veneer of assholery to cover it up. He doesn’t kill hobos because he wants to control his train; he drives a train so he has an excuse to sadistically kill a class of people no one is going to miss right out in the open. And Marvin and Carradine aren’t much better off. They’re filthy, tattered bums who have no hope whatsoever of ever rejoining society. The only option they have to retain any dignity at all is to become an Emperor of the North Pole – a top tier hobo. They lie, steal, nearly get killed and seriously endanger plenty of lives (their own and others) to try and achieve this lofty goal, but its pointlessness is already there in the title. Emperor of the North Pole still ain’t got shit. Meanwhile their friends are happily taking bets over whether or not they’ll be violently killed. Shit, this is a film which begins with a guy’s corpse getting cut in fucking half by a train. It ends in an absolutely brutal, bloody fight where A#1 and Shack go at each other with 2x4s, chains, rusty nails, hammers and axes, followed by a fairly heartbreaking coda where one major character is utterly destroyed and completely denied any redemption. But then after it ends the music cues up this stereotypical inspiring western melody, as if this is some lighthearted lark.

Clearly overseas they understand that sex sells.

I’m not sure if this was studio bungling, or if Robert Aldrich didn’t realize what he had, or what. But the plot and the creative side of the film seem to be constantly pulling in two different directions. I’m all for dark movies which don’t need to constantly drown you in depressing mise-en-scene, but this one seems to actively undermine its inner darkness as if it’s throwing its hands over its ears and shutting its eyes to it. If there’s a reason it hasn’t quite achieved classic status, this weird divide between style and content is probably it. It’s never as whimsical as it’s telling us it is, nor does it effectively take advantage of the black heart at the center of its narrative.

That said, you’re still going to watch it, and you’re going to find plenty of great things in there. For one thing, Lee Marvin fights two kids using a live chicken as a weapon. There are some classic and fun one-ups and tricks by the hobos as they scramble to stay ahead of Borgnine and the law, and some equally entertaining dirty tricks employed by Shack. There’s a scene where the two hobos scam a bunch of townies at a riverside baptism featuring a buxom brunette who becomes much more interesting to watch after being baptized (go ahead, look; Lee Marvin’s staring too). And it has Sid Haig and apparently fucking Lance Henriksen as hobo extras (I don’t think either of them has a line of dialogue, but you’ll at least notice Sid Haig’s menace in there. If anyone can find Henriksen in this thing you fucking tell me where he is. It’s like locating Joe Strummer in WALKER.) Even if the film’s weird disconnect between tone and narrative means it falls short of the classic it could have been, its still a fun, classy ride with two of cinemas greatest badasses squaring off on top of an actual moving train. Don’t even try and tell me you can do better with two hours of your time.

13 Assassins

13 Assassins (2010)
Dir. Takashi Miike
Starring Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura 

Takashi Miike is one of the most daring and controversial modern directors to come out of Japan in a long time, and has produced some crazy films which are already acknowledged as genre classics (from ICHI THE KILLER to GOZU to SUKIYAKI WESTERN: DJANGO). He's made shocking horror films and family films, and in the period between 2001 and 2002 alone, Miike is credited for directing 15 films (so says Wikipedia). Problem is I, ah, haven't seen any of them. I've seen enough of AUDITION to get the picture, but somehow managed to completely absorb the hype without ever actually watching one of his films all the way through. So whatever his latest --13 ASSASSINS-- has to do with his work as a whole I honestly couldn't say. So to paraphrase Mitch Hedberg, 'when you meet a legend but you don't know his body of work, you have to divert from that fact. Hey Takashi Miike, do you like SEVEN SAMURAI too?"

I'm guessing he does, since 13 ASSASSINS is basically a remake of Kurosawa's seminal 1954 action drama (actually, Wikipedia says it’s a direct remake of a 1963 Japanese film of the same name, but I'm guessing that one borrows pretty heavily from SAMURAI too, even though its supposedly based on real history). But that's OK, if you're gonna remake SEVEN SAMURAI with an extra six characters, you might as well have somewhere interesting to go with the concept, and Miike does nicely giving this thing a reason to exist.

It's a surprisingly straightforward, classic Samurai picture, which surprised me a little given Miike's reputation for shocking and boundary-pushing horror. There are a few little hints of the kind of craziness that seems to have endeared him to my more cinematically educated peers, but mostly they're just flavor in what is otherwise a classy, superficially normal period action piece. Sure, Kurosawa would probably not have showed us the naked quadruple-amputee lady bleeding from her eyes, but a few little touches like that just make the rest of the film seem more conventional. Not that that's a bad thing, but it’s not exactly what I was expecting given Miike's reputation. Seriously, you could show this alongside any number of Samurai films from the last 40 years and only find a few clues that it's a modern film made by this crazy auteur.

The action is quite good, and some of the set pieces are awesome and respectably crazy. There’s a couple oddball touches like these giant walls of heavy tree trunks (never explained) which leap out of nowhere to block escape, or a bunch of flaming bulls released to run down the enemy Spaniard-style. But mostly, the battle sequence is just watching our guys fight against approximately 200+ attackers by any means necessary. They get creative a couple times but I’d say a good 170 die by being slashed by swords. Since all our 13 Assassins wear the same color of dark purple and sport identical haircuts and no facial hair, it can be hard to tell them apart, especially since the camera tends to shake around a little. Not so much as to become incomprehensible, but enough that it’s hard to tell if that’s Hioki, Horii, Higuchi, Balin, Dwalin, Sleepy, Grumpy, or whoever fighting that particular group of faceless opponents with a sword (everyone except one guy uses a sword, so that’s not much help).

Miike compensates for this by having someone yell out the guy’s name every time something major happens to him, which makes it easier to figure out but also gets funny after the seventh time or so. Every once in awhile they’d show this guy with a little heavier build and I’d get excited because he’s easy to recognize, but then I’d see he was using a spear instead of a sword and I’d remember that no wait, there was another heavyset guy and I guess this is the other one.

Pretty much any given frame from the second half of the film looks like this.

What I’m saying is that with 13 instead of 7, you don’t get a whole lot of characterization of anyone except the Yul Brenner of these assassins. Most of the 13 get at most a line or two of personality exposition before they’re off to meet their deaths. Kurosawa probably got it right by paring the number down to a more memorable seven, although to be fair each one has enough flavor that you can pretty much keep them straight (‘right’, you’ll says, ‘it’s that guy who was supposed to train on explosives’, or ‘oh yeah, it’s that guy who was sitting to the left in that one scene and he seemed like he was in charge, I think his name begins with an M’). It still hurts when they start to go down, but it might hurt more if we knew a little more about them and had a few more human moments here and there.

So there’s just more people, more attackers. The geography is generally pretty clear but in the chaos of battle it’s hard to tell where everyone is or how close to their goal they are. Miike gets the most out of having so many attackers by filling up frame after frame to bursting with bodies in motion. It gets a little funny because every time one of our guys catches a moment to breath and it seems like Jesus Fucking Christ, look at those piles of corpses, surely that must be all of them… suddenly in rush what seems like 100 more opponents. I do not exaggerate when I say this happens six or seven times. It’s kind of funny but also helps you see what an exhausting slog it is to mindlessly chop your way through hundreds of opponents to find that one guy you actually want to kill. On the other hand, I’d almost have to say that SEVEN SAMURAI’S final battles feels even more like an exhausting ordeal, and there’s way less cannon fodder. It hardly needs to be said, but the SEVEN SAMURAI comparisons are inevitable and are obviously going to favor Kurosawa.

So what's the different here? Not much. The structure is virtually identical to SEVEN SAMURAI, with an hour of setup and recruiting the 13, and then the entire second half consisting of the final battle. Half setup, half payoff. Although these folks are assassins out to kill the Shogun's brother instead of protect a village, they set up their ambush in an abandoned village so it still has a kind of siege element in a single location. They’re trying to keep people from leaving rather than keep them from entering, so that’s a nice twist, but the similarities are really too overwhelming to ignore. If there's a difference here which I haven't seen in a samurai picture before, it's in the subtext.

This is a film about suicide. It starts with a man committing hara-kiri in lieu of making a direct complaint, and he’s not gonna be the last. All 13 assassins are working with the explicit knowledge that they’re going to their deaths, and they’re just going to have to find a way to be OK with that. Hell, it beats dying peacefully after a long and uneventful retirement.

Allow me to explain: The stage is set in the waning days of feudal Japan, and life is pretty peaceful in its rigidly ordered way. That seems great unless you’re a samurai, whose only purpose in life is to fight to defend the Shogunate. These peaceful times are killing the trade, and most of the Samurai haven’t seen any real combat in a long time, making their lives kind of pointless and empty. We meet our protagonist, Shinzaemon (frequent Kiyoshi Kurosawa player Koji Yakusho, CURE, SEANCE), sitting alone fishing and –with no wife, children, or work—pretty much just waiting out the clock. He’s thrilled when he hears that he’s going to get to die in the service of his profession. He’s been called out of semi-retirement because of the one person who does still seem to be enjoying his job, the Shogun’s half-brother Naritsugu (played to the hilt with bored malevolence by Goro Inagaki). Naritsugu is the one who de-limbed that poor gal I mentioned above, and he’s a hateful sociopath of breathtaking proportions, raping and murdering with impunity due to his high social status. Everyone but everyone knows this guy has to go, but due to their rigid social hierarchy, not only can no one do anything about it, no one can even bring themselves to say it. When he finally makes the mistake of killing people with connections, Shinzaemon is called in and told using a series of artful euphemisms that Naritsugu needs to no longer be in his position of power. They leave it at that, and so does everyone else. The very concept of conspiring against their hierarchy is virtually unthinkable, and the Samurai are just happy that someone gave them something to die for that they can secretly know is actually the right thing to do.

And that’s the genius of this film. It’s about this awful open secret that everyone is party to, and yet no one can acknowledge aloud. Everyone --probably even Naritsugu-- knows that he’d be better off dead, but instead of just killing him and calling it a day, everyone’s going to have to die so that they can claim the system is working. That’s where the film’s most interesting conflict comes in, in the form of Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), Naritsugu’s head Samurai. He knows better than anyone what a stunning piece of shit Naritsugu is, and it’s written on his face the whole film. He has the trapped horror of a man being gradually eaten alive from the inside. But this system has given him only one purpose in life, which is to defend his lord. If he does his job, he has to spend his life and others’ lives to protect someone actively engaged in making the word an exponentially worse place… but if he casts aside that system, his life has been completely meaningless. The horror of that conflict is constantly dancing in his eyes, but the most he can ever do to admit it is to halfheartedly say that his circumstance is unfortunate for reasons which he doesn’t elaborate on.

This is what makes the film more than merely a slightly bloodier SEVEN SAMURAI. It becomes a commentary on living in a system which so inflexibly assigns value to lives and jobs. Shinrouko, Shinzaemon’s nephew and one of the 13, is first encountered in a brothel/gambling house type of situation where he’s spending cash, getting hammered, and presumably fucking absolutely everyone in sight, wasting his talents as a samurai on booze and games of chance. Shinzaemon’s quest convinces him to stop his fun and take up the sword again. That’s where most films would stop the character arc, but by the end of this one is becomes pretty clear that he had it right the first time. Everything here is a terrible waste of life and effort, and it’s all because the feudal system which gives them no options except to walk happily into suicide and thank the guy who sent them there.

Without needing to say anything explicit about it, Miike demonstrates how horribly trapped everyone is by this system which survives entirely on the strength of people refusing to acknowledge how flawed it is. No one complains, everyone acts honorably, everyone does exactly what good samurai are supposed to do, and most films like this would leave us to be impressed by their discipline and commitment. But Miike ends the film by focusing on the piles of bodies and silently daring us to argue that this was a good use of their lives. Without comment, he informs us that the system of feudalism fell about 20 years later (he doesn’t mention that their feudalism would eventually twist itself into fascism, which brought along most of the same problems to the same culture). It’s not an anti-war picture, it just wants you to think a little bit about what kinds of things are really worth dying for, and if you should trust a society where dying for a cause is more important than living for one.

On the other hand, this poster makes a pretty compelling argument for violence.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)
Dir. Werner Herzog
Starring a bunch of rocks with animals painted on them, featuring some boss cave bear skulls, with special appearances by albino alligators, crystal formations, and Frenchmen.

            When Werner Herzog makes a documentary, you better believe he’s found something you’re not that interested in and that he’s going to turn it into a film you’re fascinated by. A big part of it is his eclectic fascination and love of unusual topics, talents, and people, and the obvious enthusiasm with which he presents his subjects. But the other part of the appeal is Herzog himself, who is equal parts philosopher, artist, deadpan comic, and German weirdo. His films are intensely interested in his subjects, and yet they feel like deeply personal statements from this inscrutable man at the same time. Somehow, even though he doesn’t talk a lot about himself, the films seem reflective of his own unique perspective, loves, fears, and obsessions. I believe he’s written and narrated all his documentaries since ECHOS FROM A SOMBER EMPIRE in 1990, and that fact alone makes them a subjective experience from the point of view of a very curious individual. Sure, I want to watch the fuck out of some 3D cave art, but if I have to choose between David Attenborough’s lightly informative prattle and Werner Herzog’s quasi-mystical philosophical musings, it’s an easy choice. Whatever the topic, you bet hearing Herzog’s voice over is gonna make it infinitely weirder and more interesting.

Among what I’m certain are many areas of philosophical agreement and professional respect between Herzog and Michael Bay, both have expressed their distaste for the proliferation of 3-D films and both immediately made their next film in 3-D. While TRANSFORMERS 3-D is still awaiting final cut approval from the Dark One, Herzog has taken his shot at 3-D by turning it on the dimly-lit walls of Chauvet caverns in France, where exist the oldest known paintings in the world. While Herzog and James Cameron may never see eye-to-eye on this 3-D thing, anyone who experiences CAVE it in 3-D has to see immediately that this was the occasion to use it, if ever there was one. You’ve seen these images before; there aren’t really all that many and most of the major ones qualify as pop art by this point. But what you haven’t ever seen is how stunning they look in their natural state. There’s a reason it’s worth it to go see the Paul Gauguin exhibit at the National Gallery until Sunday ( There’s a reason my pulse quickened when I got to see an exhibit of the original art of Dr. Seuss. You can see these images, easily, online, often in insanely high resolution. But when you see the texture, the layers, the whole dimensions of an image, it comes alive in an entirely different way. It suddenly puts you in touch not just with an image, but with the whole piece as a physical object. It connects you with the artist’s hand and movement, with the fact that you’re looking not at some lines on paper, but a physical link between two people across space and time.

And here, the people on the other end of that link happened to live some 30,000 odd years ago. Herzog uses his 3-D camera to explore these surfaces that they traversed, trying to imagine what they thought, how they moved, what it meant. He’s reverent but probing, examining and reexamining each little line with an almost erotic intensity.

It’s not lost on Herzog that these humans lived lives which are almost completely unknowable to us at this point. Some tantalizing clues remain, even through the gap of tens of thousands of years – but it’s like trying to get to know someone from three random items picked from all their possessions through their whole life. A ballpoint pen, a high heel, a copy of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” with an inspirational message from an irritating relative written on the inside. You can use these items to get a sense of time and place, the kind of resources that might have been available, maybe the basic things which might have been important. But you don’t want to know that. You want to know the person. Who they were, what they loved, how they thought, what they aspired to, what they dreamed of.  Herzog turns to scientists who can speculate on what kind of tools they might have had, what their basic routines might have been like, but it’s all a tease. He wants to know their souls. And if art is indeed the expression of a human soul, he’s picked a subject which might tantalize us with the earliest known glimpse into the human heart, rather than the human brain. This may well have been the birth of the human soul, that subtle but staggeringly important line between Cro-Magnon man, who created art, and Neanderthal Man, who created tools, but not culture. Both were still alive at this time, incidentally, living side by side in these valleys and caves. Imagine that. A second species of humans walking amongst our early ancestors. Were they humans in the sense that we are today? Can we say that Cro-Magnon man definitely was, because of the clearly abstract quality of the icons they left behind? Is that the line which measures humanity? If so, looking at these early but already rich expressions of that human soul are about as close as we can get to identifying the spiritual difference between man and beast, if indeed there is one. 

There’s some basic scientific mumbo jumbo, but Herzog's quest is to try and look into the spirit of humans over a gap of 30,000 years. Everywhere he looks, he finds signs of human playfulness and seriousness, of personality – from thousands of years in the past and from the people all around him today. Some dullard American scientist suggests that archeology is no longer an adventurous, outdoor activity, but rather a painstaking chore of dirt farming and computer modeling. Herzog, with his typically inscrutable deadpan wit, cuts to a bearded, slightly insane looking scientist with the suitably badass name Wulf Hein (I think his on-screen title may actually be “adventure geologist”) gamely dressed in his recreation of Aurignacian period fashion and playing his heart out on a recreation stone-age flute. If they had flutes, they had music, and now you have to wonder what they played. Significantly, he notes that the flute is in the right key to play “The Star Spangled Banner,” which he coyly demonstrates. Did some Stone-Age flautist pick out that tune 30,000 year ago, not realizing that ancestors separated from him (or her) by an incalculable span of time would attach their own meaning to it? Herzog doesn’t have to say it aloud to know you’re pondering it. 

Man, Hall and Oates did not age well.

He can’t help but be interested in modern spirits too – he includes a bit where he asks a pony-tailed scientists about his former job as a circus performer, and an interesting but irrelevant tangent about a master perfumer who literally uses his nose to look for hidden caves (what the fuck, that guy gets to go inside the cave but I don’t?) – but it’s the ancient ancestors who are the star of the show, and Herzog does everything he can to try and help you see through their eyes (the crews’ ever-moving lights and shadows hint at the way the paintings must have been originally experienced by torchlight), listen with their ears (during a long quiet stretch where the crew stand perfectly still and let the otherwise imperceptible audio of the cave become the star) feel with their hands (through his penetrating use of 3-D) and even smell with their noses, thanks to our friend the master perfumer cave-smeller. I’d bet my life there’s a deleted scene where he talks to some hunter or chef about the taste of raw cave bear meat. He wants us to have every possible tool to try and imagine their lives, their minds.

But as much as it is tantalizing to imagine, the more you think about it the more alien and mysterious it becomes. They might be humans, but trying to understand them is like trying to imagine what a baby is thinking. Not because they were primitive, but because their context and way of thinking about the world is just so entirely unknown and unknowable.  Just to put it in modern language would probably destroy any truth you might find. In a way, this is a perfect companion piece to another excellent, poetic documentary from Europe, 2010’s INTO ETERNITY. That one is ostensibly about the nuclear waste repository being stuck at the very bottom abandoned copper mine in Finland, but actually it’s just as much about communicating across an unimaginable amount of time for a human being. You see, once we store that nuclear waste, it’s going to be dangerously radioactive for 100,000 years.

Yes, 100,000.

Meaning that we have a responsibility to communicate to our ancestors 100,000 years in the future that this site is dangerous and must never be opened. It goes without saying that no human sociological structure has ever survived that long (or even come close) and neither will this current one.100,000 years from now, any tiny remnant of our current human societies is likely to be as mysterious and unknowable as the cave paintings are to us. Perhaps just as primitive. If the human soul has evolved from ancient paintings of horses to the music of Lady Gaga in a mere 30,000 years, imagine what our ancestors in the year 102,011 CE will wonder about our wants, out dreams, our values, our souls. Our minds can’t comprehend that span of time and space in human terms. Maybe someday millennia from now, a descendant of Werner Herzog will be reverently ultra-3-D-smell-o-visioning the few remaining copies of O magazine and trying desperately to imagine what kind of humanity he shares with people that far removed from himself. He won’t really be able to know, but maybe it means something just to imagine. Anyway, hopefully he’ll get the hint that he should stay the fuck out of caves in Finland, regardless of the primitive art he might find down there.

As it is, modern-day Herzog is always a worthwhile watch. Here, more than perhaps anything else he’s ever done, he’s committed to arming us with as many tools as possible to fuel our imaginations, and challenging us with perhaps the ultimate question about the nature of the human soul. This would be a stunning documentary were it a purely visual piece alone (Herzog is showman enough to structure his film in a way which organically escalates the power of the paintings and the way we get to see them, and he effortlessly utilizes Ernst Reijseger’s stunning score to great effect) but the heart of the film is that this beauty and mystery is being explored by this particular Baywatch-referencing German oddball. It puts a human face on the mystery of humanity itself, and makes it seem all the more remote, and yet all the more vitally compelling.

Coda: here is a picture of an albino alligator.

As inscrutable German metaphors go, this one is pretty unexpected.

For reason I can confidently say I don’t entirely understand, Herzog also chooses to end his film with this image. I think he may be meditating on the inevitable evolution of humans from one thing to another, with the single thread of our common humanity uniting us but still allowing for startling distance between our minds, if not our souls. But possibly not, I’m open to suggestions.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hobo With a Shotgun

Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)
Dir. Jason Eisener
Starring Rutger Hauer and who the hell else do you need besides Rutger Hauer? Also Molly Dunsworth, Brian Downey, and Gregory Smith.

So I saw a bunch of fine movies recently, from the likes of Errol Morris, Warner Herzog, and Kim Ji-Woon. We'll get to those in a bit. But for some reason, the film I really want to talk about right now and can't stop telling people about is a sleazy, low-rent Canadian Z-grade exploitation feature called HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN. I saw it on Saturday and frankly have already put more thought into it than I've ever expended on a Terrence Malick film (no offense, Terrence. There's room in my heart for both you and a dirty, disheveled Rutger Hauer frantically blowing people away with a shotgun).

So you probably know the origins of this thing if you've made it this far into the review, but let's have a quick overview for the folks just joining us. HOBO is yet another inexplicable spin-off of the commercially unsuccessful and mildly amusing Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino exploitation homage GRINDHOUSE, which featured period-accurate fake trailers of ridiculous grindhouse films which for some reason keep getting made into real films which are actually better than the original real film which sported the fake trailers. In the case of HOBO, director Jason Eisener was the winner of a make-your-own-grindhouse-trailer contest, creating easily the most authentic-looking and focused of the many trailers (to my eye, only Edgar Wright's DON'T trailer, produced with his usual fastidious eye for detail, even approaches the legitimacy of the HOBO trailer). Well, they had to know after GRINDHOUSE, PLANET TERROR, DEATH-PROOF, and MACHETE that there was not really any money to be made with this concept, but for some reason somebody in Canada gave the kid some cash and HOBO made the jump from meta-joke to actual film.

And you know what? This Eisener kid runs fucking circles around Tarantino, Rodriguez, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie. He made a better movie out of the concept than all of them, and, crucially, he did it honestly. Now, I enjoyed the GRINDHOUSE twins (the movies, not the babysitter twins) and MACHETE quite a bit. They're fun films packed with their respective directors' usual strengths (and weaknesses). PLANET TERROR has some respectably outrageous concepts, DEATH PROOF has some classic Tarantino dialogue and great stunts, MACHETE has Machete himself, which turns out to be worth more on its own than the three movies worth of plot they stuffed around him. And Jeff Fahey also.

But as much as they got the details right on the trailers and intertitles and whatnot, none of those are real sub-B-grade exploitation cinema. They're big expensive movies made by successful Hollywood directors who grew up on that cinema and think it's cute to go on talk shows and gratuitously throw around the word "grindhouse." Digitally scratching up the "film" to make it look old doesn't automatically make your multi-million dollar big studio-funded massively advertised genre joke a grindhouse film. All those films are consummately professional, big-budget (comparatively), tongue-in-cheek homages to exploitation films, not the real deal. No one at all familiar with that category of films would confuse the two; they're too self-conscious about how clever they are at recreating the minutiae of a now pretty-much dead type of movie.*

HOBO is having none of that ironic meta shit. It is not a homage. It is not a satire. It genuinely is the most imaginatively twisted ill-tempered perverse borderline psychopathic film of 1985. It absolutely never feels like its trying to mimic a sleazy 80s exploitation feature -- it just IS one. You could show this film next to Albert Pyun's RADIOACTIVE DREAMS and you'd be completely unable to tell which was genuinely made in a cocaine-fueled haze in 1985. If anything, DREAMS might look more like the cheeky parody of 80s schlock clichés (it wasn't). HOBO has everything you'd want out of a cheap Reagan-era exploitation thriller: apocalyptic fears of a collapsing society, roving gangs of randomly violent outrageously garbed street punks, shameless mega-acting** bolstered by equally extreme photography, intense abstract color schemes, sleazy sexual violence, nauseating 80s new wave pop, and lots and lots of bloody squibs. All these things are exaggerated to the point of distortion, but the key is that they're never exaggerated for the sake of parody. They're outrageous because this is a genuinely outrageous movie, not because some punk kid wanted to poke fun at a kind of movie which hasn't been made for 20+ years that were made under punishing practical constraints and yet still managed to be more original and memorable than most of the crap that they try to pass off as exploitation today and now stuff is more expensive and teenagers swear all the time and you kids get off my lawn.

Anyway, I’ll admit I was a little scared going into this one. The trailer looked sleazy and depraved in an awesome way, but some of the feedback I started to hear had me worried that this was actually going to be too much for me. Specifically, I was horrified by this comment by “Charles” on

I would agree that both HOBO and WANTED are both cruel films, but as mean spirited and cruel as WANTED is it is no where near as cruel or sadistic as HOBO.

Well, WANTED was a film which, despite being one of the sharpest and best-made action films in a long time, was actually so morally bankrupt that it lost me and stopped being fun. Its not that it was too violent or sadistic; it’s that it was so fetishistically committed to its worship of killing, and so openly contemptuous of anything resembling human decency. Its idea of morals is to never disobey the magic loom that tells you to kill people. I’m not claiming to be the world’s greatest humanitarian, but to me there’s a huge difference in using ultra-violence to help people you care about and using ultra-violence to further the agenda of a magic loom. One is way easier for me to get behind. And fortunately HOBO understands that.

In fact, that’s what makes it work. It’s a work stunning depravity, bound and determined to push some buttons most movies won’t dare touch – but that’s what being exploitation cinema is all about. Its saving grace is that – just like its protagonist-- underneath the layers of filth and crazy there’s a center of basic human kindness. Our nameless Hobo comes to town not to get vengeance against anyone who wronged him, but to buy a lawnmower and start his own business. He’s trying to start his life again in the humblest possible way, and willing to do some degrading things just for the chance. WANTED would have found him pathetic, but I’ll be damned if the makers of this film aren’t genuinely sad that it doesn’t work out for him (SPOILER: He buys a shotgun instead. But the lawnmower ingeniously returns later in the film!). The central tension in the film is not if he will kill his enemies, but if he’ll be able to get out of the vigilante game alive and maybe get a chance at redemption. WANTED and HOBO trade in the same love of imaginatively violent film, but to me their different perspectives on what’s valuable makes all the difference.

I think this about sums it up.

Anger and aggression are worthwhile things to reflect upon, and even to create violent fantasies about --but to me, they’re worthwhile only to the extent to which the focus of the anger and aggression is worthwhile. Our Hobo is angry because he sees a young woman stuck in an unbearably awful situation which she can’t escape without his help. Weirdly enough in a film called HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, I think this basic kindness is the thing that the filmmakers like most about the character. There’s a certain enjoyment to watching him blow away the appallingly deranged antagonists of the film, but if you watch closely after his initial rampage, he’s almost always on the defensive. The few times he’s not, he doesn’t look cool and sexy – he looks dirty and crazy, and the characters react to him with horror. He feels like he’s been given no choice but to resort to violence, and maybe he’s right – but the movie’s subtext is about wasted potential, and there’s a genuine regret that its come to shotgun violence instead of yard maintenance.

There’s even a fairly coherent religious allegory at the end, about a god that would create a world ugly enough that someone has to be sacrificed to put an end to it. It’s about as overt as you would want out of something like this, and yet, oddly, the more I think about it the more appropriate --and even thoughtful!-- it seems.

Casting Rugter Hauer in any movie is always a stroke of genius, and the filmmakers are wise enough to let him carry the film. He’s just as good as you might imagine, making his nameless character a complex mix of biblical wrath, awkward sweetness, and pitiable helplessness. There’s no backstory save for some very slight implications that he may have suffered a painful personal loss somewhere a long time ago that led him to this sorry state, but Hauer somehow ties his extreme traits together to make the character feel complete and tragic, while still reminding us that he’s a complete trainwreck and probably a little mentally ill. He’s pathetic, in a way, (listen to him awkwardly fail to make a metaphor about bears as he desperately tries to say something meaningful to someone he wants to help) but there’s a fierce dignity to Hauer’s steely blue eyes which ensure that he’s never a joke. Nobody else in the movie is anywhere near as good as Hauer is, but everyone seems gamely committed to the exaggerated reality of the film. The antagonists are colorful, myriad, and suitably despicable, and even the leading lady (while not the greatest actress in the world) gives it her all.

And really, that’s what makes this a special one. When you hear a title as brilliantly zen as ZOMBIE STRIPPERS or SNAKES ON A PLANE, you better start lowering your expectations because you know the filmmakers are just gonna coast on that title and not worry about making the great film that ZOMBIE STRIPPERS, by all rights, ought to be. Or worse still, they may confuse an elegantly simple exploitation concept with lowbrow entertainment, and are going to make some winking self-conscious bullshit falling all over itself to remind you that it’s in on the joke. Here, blessedly, there is no joke. The people making this thing cared about it enough to want to make it good. They cared enough to put some artistry into the camera framing, into the sets, into the costumes. They cared enough to write a script which has enough confidence in the concept not to overload it with a bunch of unnecessary crap but which is also unafraid to delve a little into what it represents and what it might symbolize in this old crazy world which has plenty of sick, sad, depraved things in it, but is sadly lacking in hobos with shotguns. 

Which reminds me, they really need to make that ENTER THE VOID sequel about post-apocalyptic supernatural motorcycle killers.

When exploitation films were really being produced in earnest, they catered to a market which wanted to see something it couldn't get in the mainstream media -- be it explicit sex, shocking violence, or just bizarre concepts which normal people would never take seriously. With the arrival of the internet, there's not much room left for that anymore, but HOBO reminds us that the ones worth remembering were products of more than cheap shocks. They were labors of twisted imagination and often herculean efforts under terrible conditions, borne out of a desire to create something truly memorable, if not exactly enlightening. Jason Eisner and his crew are a genuine testament to that spirit, and their film is a reflection of that continued tradition of dreaming weird.

*BLACK DYNAMITE --despite being a more direct satire-- is closer to the real deal. It looks cheap because it WAS cheap. It's much more committed to the look, feel, motifs, music, and even structure of 70s Blaxploitation than any GRINDHOUSE spin-off was. But still, although it recreates the details a little more honestly and consistently than the GRINDHOUSE boys, its obviously a parody and no one who watched it all the way through would be fooled.

**Mega-Acting is a trademark of Vern at