November Blindspot: The Usual Suspects (1995)

Release: Friday, September 15, 1995

→YouTube

Written by: Christopher McQuarrie

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Before the X-Men made Bryan Singer a household name in the early 2000s, he had already achieved what the vast majority do not by directing an Oscar winner on his second try, the 1995 neo-noir mystery The Usual Suspects. He had help of course, with his regularly contributing screenwriter taking home one of the two statues for his talky and twisty original screenplay while Kevin Spacey snagged the other for his star-making role as a small-time con man suffering cerebral palsy. The director’s ambition has certainly grown over the years, as have his budgets, but the irony remains that some of his most inspired work resulted before he ever earned his seat at the big kids’ table.

Even if Singer failed to earn plaudits for himself that February night, his craftsmanship here is undeniable. The Usual Suspects is not only stylish without being affectatious, it offers its cast of brand-name actors plenty of room to stretch their legs and play off of one another’s unique energy. The film is not just a master class in obscuring the edges of morality but the cinematic sleight of hand is also really impressive. So often the frame is filled with smoke and mirrors figuring out what is actually going on can be a tall task. Patience (and a willingness to forego immediate comprehension of events) pays dividends. Singer makes you feel as if you’ve accomplished something by the end, something that cannot be said about his more blockbuster-friendly fare, fun as those adventures may have been.

Despite the peripheral blur, the premise remains simple. A major dope deal turns ugly aboard a boat moored in the San Pedro Bay, and a lone survivor, claiming immunity, recounts the details of his involvement and the events leading up to it through extended and potentially unreliable flashbacks. In the present tense, U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) must decide on what level to trust his source. He knows as well as any thug he’s put behind bars that no one wants to be a rat.

The story begins with an explanation of an event that took place six weeks prior, an amusingly farcical police investigation into the disappearance of a truck carrying guns through New York. Although a group of five mangy suspects are brought in for questioning, no culprit is identified. While sequestered in a holding cell, one among them, Stephen Baldwin’s bad-boy hipster Michael McManus, hatches a scheme to screw with the boys in blue as a token of their gratitude for being pointlessly incarcerated. Everyone is on board except Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a former dirty cop trying to turn over a new leaf by going into the restaurant biz.

The others — Benecio Del Toro‘s too-cool-for-proper-enunciation Fred Fenster; Kevin Pollak as angry guy Todd Hockney and the recently disgraced Spacey as the aforementioned Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint — have no compunction to leave this cell changed men. A series of profitable but small-time jobs eventually leads the gang to a big payday, when an opportunity arises to clear their names with an arch-criminal by the name of Keyser Söze, an almost mythological figure whom no one ever sees or hears from directly. Because their affinity for theft has struck a little too close to home, one of Söze’s representatives, a mysterious man played by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite informs them they can avoid certain death if they disrupt a major coke deal about to go down in the Bay, one that stands to net a competing drug lord $91 million.

Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay, which has curried so much favor with the Writer’s Guild of America over the years it’s now considered among the top 40 greatest screenplays of all time, creates a confluence of themes that include but are certainly not confined to: persuasion versus manipulation; virtue versus vice. Does crime really pay off all your debts? A scale of relativism emerges from the morass: the only thing worse than a career criminal is a career criminal who rats on his colleagues. And in The Usual Suspects, there’s sort of this poetic justice with the way snitches get their stitches.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: This is a movie you’ll have to put some effort into but it’s so worth it you’ll very likely end up like me, embarrassed you decided to give up on the first 20 minutes in the first place. After those 20 very confusing and frustrating minutes, the nut eventually cracks. It’s milk comes spilling forth. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Something better than another damn quote: The line-up scene was scripted as a serious scene, but after a full day of filming takes where the actors couldn’t keep a straight face, Singer decided to use the funniest takes. Behind the scenes footage reveals the director becoming furious at his actors for not being able to keep their shit together. In an interview, Kevin Pollak states that the hilarity came about when Benicio Del Toro “farted, like 12 takes in a row.” Del Toro himself said “somebody” farted, but no one knew who. 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

October Blindspot: Cujo (1983)

Release: Friday, August 12, 1983

→YouTube

Written by: Don Carlos Dunaway; Lauren Currier

Directed by: Lewis Teague

Bad dog! Very BAD dog!

When man’s best friend becomes your worst enemy, you get Cujo‘ed — trapped in your 1983 Ford Gimp-mobile, fighting for your life against a rabid St. Bernard who can smell your fear and taste the salt of your sweat through the hot car windows and won’t stop attacking until he gets his treats.

Being the avid non-reader of Stephen King that I am, I’ll venture a guess that the modest thrills Cujo offers are not among the horror author’s most repeatedly sought out. The film’s gained a cult following over the years, and it’s not hard to see why even with the clunky narrative right-angles and the abundance of dull characters, not to mention an ending so abrupt it’s as if the filmmakers could NOT WAIT to get to the part where the audience applauds. Though if you ask me, what really makes Lewis Teague’s adaptation worth watching is how he presents the horror. As Michael Scott’s Fun Run Race for the Cure was so good at reminding us, rabies ain’t no joke.

As everyone but me has known for some time now, the story traces a cuddly pooch’s descent into madness after being bitten by a bat and the subsequent killing spree he goes on in a small American town. Famously the drama climaxes with a mother (Dee Wallace in an appropriately histrionic performance) and her young son (Danny Pintauro)’s terrifying encounter with the aggressive canine that imprisons them in the very car they’ve driven miles into the boonies to get repaired. With no easy escape in sight, a blood-soaked battle of wits ensues over the course of a couple of days.

Simplicity often works in the film’s favor, particularly as it concerns itself with that which is purely visually horrific: the transformation of Cujo from Ole Yeller to homicidal monster is surprisingly distressing. There’s not much more sickening than seeing dog fur matted with blood that’s not his own, eyes jaundiced from some level of psychosis only serial killers know. The horror in that way stems not from any supernatural force or alien-spawned violence but rather an animal succumbing to a real (nasty) disease.

When it comes to the human perspective, that’s where this monster movie struggles with its simplistic approach. The film’s pacing is so inconsistent it essentially becomes a tale of two halves, one that spends the first 45 minutes or so lounging about, exploring the dynamics of a rather boring family, and the other on the grisly, animal-related violence. In that first half, the Trentons are portrayed as a seemingly idyllic, loving household who inherit most of their character traits through their “fashionable” ’80s hairstyles and clothing. On the other side, we get a glimpse of the environment that breeds Cujo. (Spoiler alert: it’s not such a pretty picture.)

Only the broadest of brushstrokes are applied to the characters, with Daniel Hugh Kelly playing along as a likable and supportive father, while Wallace gets to have some fun with a more dynamic role as a distant housewife. The ones in closest proximity to Cujo, at least initially, are so obviously disposable. I will admit though it’s fun to watch them get turned into Cujo’s Kibbles and Bits. And as usual, the point of view of a child becomes a crucial lens through which a great many (if not all) King adaptations must be viewed. Cue a little more rolling around in cliché.

In Cujo, young Tad is convinced monsters are real. Of course, dear old dad — who is nearly subversive in his trustworthiness as a Horror Movie Dad — can’t possibly be expected to factor big-ass, ferociously rabid dogs into his anti-monster bedtime rhetoric. The film strains to connect it, but there’s an interesting enough parallel drawn between Tad’s imagination and the horror of reality he’s soon to experience.

Still, the loss of innocence is nowhere near as compelling as simply watching a wild animal confirm that sometimes one’s bite really is worse than his bark. Two thumbs up for the dog, woof. What a performance.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Chopper, sic balls . . .

Recommendation: Though it starts sluggish and takes its time to evolve from humdrum human drama into full-fledged, in-your-face bloody action, the back nine of this film is absolutely worth the wait. One well-trained animal makes it also well worth MY wait. But I wonder what organizations like PETA think of a movie like Cujo. I mean, yikes. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins. 

Quoted: “F**k you, dog.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.denofgeek.com 

Month in Review: September ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

As Green Day’s very own Billy Joe Armstrong once whined: wake me up when September ends. (I guess I overslept, because it’s now October and all the trees are thinking about getting naked.) If you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world right now, Setbacktember has been a disheartening month, politically, socially and morally. But I have literally edited myself ten times here trying to figure out a good way of expressing my thoughts about recent events without going on a rant. I failed, epically. (If you want to read one of those drafts out of morbid curiosity, here’s a link.)* There’s already too much negative energy in the room right now anyway, so I’d rather talk about the good movies I’ve seen this month. While escapement has been rather difficult to say the least, here is what I have been seeing/doing/being a snob about.

It’s important right now to not feel de-feeted.


New Posts

New Releases: What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters); mother!; Wind River

Blindspot Selection: Reservoir Dogs (1992) · The nucleus of everything Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs is an economically produced, yet chatty and hyper-violent crime thriller that takes place almost entirely in a single room. Its plot focuses squarely upon a group of jewelry thieves who, after bungling a seemingly simple job, suspect a traitor to be in their midst.

Though rough around the edges, this bold and brazen feature debut demonstrates Tarantino’s EAR for natural dialogue, not to mention characters that feel plucked right from the seedy streets of a more dangerous side of America. While certain scenes that tend to ramble on offer a little too much transparency with regards to budgetary constraints (his overhead famously rose from a very modest $30,000 to $1.5 million after actor Harvey Keitel signed on as a producer and agreed to take part), these small-time, thin-tied crooks whose volatile, panicky temperaments make for often uncomfortable and unpredictable viewing, anchor the movie. They’re sloppy, but they’re at least icons of criminal slop. Between Steve Buscemi’s “I don’t tip waitresses” Mr. Pink and me discovering that Sean Penn has a younger brother, and can do C-R-A-Z-Y so disturbingly naturally it may not even be acting, I might well have discovered the one Tarantino movie I will constantly be surprised by no matter how many times I watch it. This shouldn’t work as well as it does.

(Also, why is Tim Roth playing a guy named ‘Mr. Orange?’ He spends far more time being red!)

A Four-Pack of Film Reviews

Good Time · August 25, 2017 · Directed by the Safdie brothers · The criminal life has never looked so stressful and unsexy in the Safdie brothers’ highly emotive and constantly subversive look at life as a desperate youngster trying to survive on the streets of a side of New York you don’t usually see in the movies. The film appears to provide rising star Robert Pattinson another showcase for his not inconsiderable dramatic talents, but what it actually does is offer the former Twilight star his best shot of Oscar glory in years. Possibly the best he’ll ever have. Gah, if only the movie had better timing. As Constantine “Connie” Nikas, Pattinson reaches deeper than he ever has to construct the profile of a truly desperate young man, a criminal lowlife who does well to reject every attempt the viewer makes to feel for him. Connie finds himself enduring a night from hell when he makes the rounds trying to free his mentally handicapped younger brother Nick (Benny Safdie) from a Rikers Island holding cell in the aftermath of a botched bank robbery. The energy of the film is what strikes you most, radiating directly from Pattinson who rushes about the scene like a Tasmanian devil, destroying lives and burning out like a comet himself in the process. It’s quite simply an awesome performance and the film essentially lives or dies on whether you find him effective. The Safdie brothers are a duo you’re going to want to keep an eye on going forward. (4.5/5) 

The Big Sick · July 14, 2017 · Directed by Michael Showalter · A romantic comedy standing defiantly against the odds, this based-on-a-real-life-courtship offers more than just the deets about how Pakistani-born actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani met his wife (screenwriter Emily V. Gordon). Cultures clash and toes are trodden upon — often painfully — as Kumail (playing himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) struggle to reconcile their radically different upbringings along with the expectations heaped upon them both by family and society at large. This uncommonly emotionally resonant and surprisingly enlightening story is not always pleasant to endure. It often feels like real heartache, and that’s a compliment of the highest order when it comes to this genre. One of the year’s greatest surprises, and yet more proof that Nanjiani is among the more disarming comics working today. (4/5) 

Their Finest · April 7, 2017 · Directed by Lone Scherfig · Lovingly crafted and superbly acted by a likable ensemble led by Gemma Arterton, Danish director Lone Scherfig’s testament to the power of propagandistic filmmaking also doubles as a rousing tribute to the strength and courage of one woman who managed to ascend to a position most women living in 1940s Britain could only dream of — being regarded as equal amongst their male peers. Aspects of Catrin Cole’s personal and professional lives are rather well-balanced, though it’s undoubtedly her rise to prominence as a screenwriter on the production of an epic reenactment of the Dunkirk evacuations that weighs heavier here. While Sam Claflin’s contributions as an already-established screenwriter who initially struggles to curb his chauvinism are earnest, his increasing prominence threatens to undermine the film’s seriousness of purpose in its thematic explorations of female empowerment and independence. Still, Their Finest is just too finely acted to become caught up in the lesser details. Arterton is complemented by an almost exclusively British cast, with Jake Lacy providing some American color to proceedings as an Allied hero/wooden actor. (3.5/5)

It · September 8, 2017 · Directed by Andy Muschietti · The horror event of the year failed to strike fear into my heart (though that’s not to discredit Bill Skarsgård as the titular freak, who is kinda-sorta fun). A tediously long and uninteresting slog through horror cliches, Andy Muschietti’s highly-anticipated adaptation of Stephen King’s epic horror novel plays out like a haunted house attraction in which you are constantly being led around by a tour guide who tells you you can’t touch anything. (Out of fear of ruining the magic, I would assume.) As everyone knows by now, It of course isn’t over. Chapter One merely describes the initial encounter with a shape-shifting demonic entity from King’s imagined Macroverse, in which the teen protagonists must do battle with not only Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but a ring of local bullies whose threat often and ironically drowns out that of the central villain in his own movie. If only the kids (minus Jaeden Lieberher‘s “Stuttering Bill”) facing down their demons were in the slightest bit developed, maybe I would have been able to use my heart instead of my brain to get over Muschietti’s disappointingly workmanlike treatment. (2/5) 

Blogging News

More music might be in the future on Thomas J! We are drawing nearer to the one-month mark to my next Dream Theater show, this time in historic Asbury Park, New Jersey. That post will drop sometime late November. As we’ve seen lately with how I follow through on Blog-related promises, I can’t capital-P promise, but how bout I just lower-case-p promise for now?

Word.

* Ha! you got duped; there is no link, plus now you’re wasting time reading this!

Photo credits: http://www.dailydot.com; http://www.imdb.com 

July Blindspot: Swingers (1996)

Release: Friday, October 18, 1996

→YouTube

Written by: Jon Favreau

Directed by: Doug Liman

It is all too easy to assume certain things about a movie titled Swingers. Oh, how does that expression go? The project that launched the careers of both its leads as well as the director is, yes, very much a “dude-flick” preoccupied with the pursuit of happiness via the pursuit of women, but the way in which it extracts genuine, honest emotion out of such simple ambitions is really impressive.

Steeped in the Swing Revival period that swept over America in the late ’90s — a curious echo of the 1930s and ’40s when Benny Goodman was King of Swing — Doug Liman’s break-out comedy is both an homage and a movie of its era. Sampling everything from contemporary revivalist groups like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to ’50s jump blues icons like Louis Jordan, Swingers builds much of its swagger through its eclectic soundtrack. Luckily there are performances to match the up-tempo musical stylings.

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau are a comedic dream playing struggling actors in Tinseltown who spend their days looking for work and their nights for a good time. Trent (Vaughn) is the quintessential Ladies’ Man whose sense of connectedness to this earth is defined entirely by his gift of gab. He’s not the type to invest his energy into anything long-term, anything real. The only commitment he knows is to playing the field. His prototypical extrovert stands in stark contrast to Favreau’s Mikey who, six months after the fact, is still reeling from a break-up from a longtime girlfriend whom he left behind in New York in pursuit of his dreams out west.

Whereas Trent only looks forward to the future (and his next cocktail), Mikey can’t stop looking back. His obsession with the past has really done a number on his self-esteem and his ability to connect to others in the here and now. Favreau’s nuanced performance captures the pain of being socially graceless and, perhaps because his character is also uncannily me, should have received more than a Best Newcomer award. His A-list status today may somewhat belie his true talents. The role is proof that Favreau is an actor first and a director second. Who knew the guy could do awkward and repressed so convincingly?

After an impromptu trip to Las Vegas* fails to revive a heartbroken Mikey, Trent and a few other actor friends — Rob (Ron Livingston, also playing a version of himself as a fresh hopeful in the City of Broken Dreams), Charles (Alex Désert) and a boy named Sue (Patrick Van Horn) — decide that enough is enough. It’s time to rally around their fallen comrade. Famously the refrain becomes “You’re so money, baby, you don’t even know it.”

Though it is a collective effort, it’s really Trent who tries to instill in Mikey all that he knows about the “unwritten rules” of the social scene. However, when push comes to shove, none of the advice seems to help. His boy is too much of a “nice guy,” which concerns Trent because he knows nice guys finish last. But Swingers (Favreau‘s first screenplay) posits this is an outmoded attitude, even in the ’90s. “Finishing last” could mean meeting a Lorraine (Heather Graham, whose well-placed cameo suggests that timing is the only thing that really matters). Ever so subtly the tone shifts away from crassness and towards something approaching genteelism. It becomes apparent after awhile that there are actually drawbacks of being a Trent. It’s probably a stretch to call the film socially responsible, but its flirtation with romance is a wholly unexpected diversion.

Swingers is a movie of simple pleasures and it’s decidedly low-budget. On first watch you’ll probably notice some technical stuff like the shadow of the camera-man against the wall as he climbs stairs in pursuit of the actors. Visible boom mics in a number of shots. Some of the effects are badly dated. If you ask me, all of this adds to the purity of the experience. The movie has such a big heart it just barely manages to wear it on its sleeve. Its passion is persuasive. Its enthusiasm contagious. Swingers is a born winner. And the music ain’t bad either.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

* Fun trivia: the scene that takes place on the side of the highway on the return trip wasn’t shot legally. Permits for shooting are required, and the production team neither could afford one nor would have ever been able to acquire one for this particular location for red-tape-related reasons. So Liman had to improvise and make it appear as though they weren’t working even though they were. Apparently as the undercover shoot took place local cops were standing by, just out of frame.

Recommendation: Fun, uplifting, unexpectedly wholesome. You won’t want to throw it on for family movie night, but if you’re going through a rough patch Swingers is one hell of an antidote. Whether you’re a Trent or a Mikey there’s a lot to be gained out of this treatise on social dynamics — and though times have definitely changed, our innate desire to find happiness in another person has not.

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “So how long do I wait to call?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.youtube.com 

May Blindspot: What About Bob? (1991)

Release: Friday, May 17, 1991

[YouTube]

Written by: Tom Schulman

Directed by: Frank Oz

Given the career Frank Oz has been able to enjoy over the span of some 40 years, a gentle comedy like What About Bob? tends to get lost in the shuffle. That’s a shame, because it’s quite funny. Wholesome in that 1990s PG-comedy kind of way; sentimental in the same.

Oz has directed Steve Martin twice and he’s kicked it with DeNiro once, so his collaboration with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss isn’t some crazy cosmic event. He’s put in the work to get here, having helped launch Jim Henson’s career in the early going with his development of both Sesame Street and The Muppets. He also curiously remade The Stepford Wives and brought chaos upon a British family in his 2007 farcical comedy Death at a Funeral. But his behind-the-scenes work didn’t become the stuff of cinematic legend until Henson repaid the favor by turning down the part of Yoda in Star Wars, recommending George Lucas cast his friend instead. And history, the rest is.

By comparison What About Bob? feels like a rather modest achievement. Modest, but not insignificant. It’s a film whose fixation upon mental health was taboo then and is, sadly, taboo now. It tries to define what sound mental health is through an exploration of an unorthodox relationship between Dr. Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss), an accomplished psychotherapist, and his high-maintenance, multi-phobic client, a neurotic New Yorker named Bob Wiley (Murray). Of course, that’s not to suggest this is a thorough interrogation of perpetually un-PC subject matter as what unfolds aims for entertainment rather than the provocation of thought and discussion. Think of it more as a friendly PSA urging us to be more tolerant of others’ quirks and mannerisms, regardless of whether they’re clinically diagnosable traits.

Dead Poets Society screenwriter Tom Schulman’s work is simply but effectively constructed, the farcical events forcing the pair of well-matched leads into comically and diametrically opposed character arcs, with Murray slowly regaining his dignity and Dreyfuss steadily going mad over the course of a fleeting hour and forty minutes. Murray is an ideal spokesperson for the quirky and off-kilter. Ostensibly, he’s bringing nothing new to his role, but that’s ironically what this overly familiar movie needs. It needs Bill Murray being Bill Murray. When Bob is first pawned off by his former counsel and onto Dr. Marvin, the actor’s eccentricities embrace you as a warm hug from a grandparent.

Meanwhile, Dreyfuss arguably outshines his costar in doing the dirty work, exuding a level of self-absorption that makes him an easy target. He comes across cold and clinical, a puffed-up, red-faced bureaucrat who cares not so much about the hippocratic oath (or maybe even his family) as he does earning more accolades and climbing further up the career ladder. Dreyfuss’s performance is outstanding, a controlled caricature of professional hubris that so perfectly culminates with a man drooling in a wheelchair.

The plot remains obvious and more than a little contrived in parts — it’s really difficult to believe a man as neurotic as Bob would actually board a public bus for New Hampshire, but we acknowledge the plot must move along somehow. You tend to get over those sorts of things, because there’s a lot of it to go round, and while the film relies mighty heavily on its star power, it’s frequent pit stopping into cliché is justified.

Dr. Marvin learns the hard way that “I’m on vacation” is a foreign concept to his oddball client. The story proper gets underway when Bob manages to track his impatient doctor down in his New Hampshire hideaway and begins the process of integrating himself into the family. Compounding Dr. Marvin’s discombobulation is the rapidly growing divide between himself and his family. He can’t comprehend the fact his wife Fay (Julie Hagerty) and children, Anna (Kathryn Erbe) and Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo), have taken a liking to this possible sociopath. Bob, who has justified his sudden appearance as him taking some of Dr. Marvin’s advice to heart (“take a vacation from your problems”), is viewed by the majority as the fun-loving drunk uncle rather than a pest who needs to be flushed out.

With all due respect to Murray, the genius that he is (and Bob is certifiably a great character), the schadenfreude that comes with Dreyfuss’ energetic, unhinged performance simply makes this experience what it is — granted, something of an echo of the trials endured by Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles four years earlier. In that film, a similarly obnoxious but well-meaning northerner effectively infiltrated the personal life of a gruff stranger, often to his own detriment, and ever-so-occasionally to surprisingly poignant effect. However, where that film truly satisfied with the way John Candy was able to finally win the other guy over, What About Bob? clumsily tries to contrive that same feeling in the final few seconds.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: With two outstanding performances from Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, What About Bob? becomes something I can easily suggest to viewers who are looking for another solid, perhaps overlooked Bill Murray comedy from the early ’90s. Funny, heartwarming, ultimately predictable but definitely worthwhile. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “Shit-eating son of a bitch! Bastard, douchebag, twat, numb-nuts, dickhead, BITCH!” [Editors note: I love the MPAA ratings of the ’90s.]

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

April Blindspot: Metropolis (1927)

Release: Sunday, March 13, 1927

[Netflix]

Written by: Thea von Harbou

Directed by: Fritz Lang

Austrian-German filmmaker Fritz Lang’s critique of capitalism and class structure in his classic silent epic Metropolis is a sight to behold, even if it is far from graceful. He imagines a dystopian city in the year 2026, a self-contained universe starkly divided between the weak and the powerful, the have’s and the have-not’s. When the son of the city’s visionary planner crosses the threshold into the world of the machine workers after being lured there by a beautiful woman, he learns the terrible truth about the city and his position within it and seeks to change the status quo.

Despite universal praise for its technical prowess, most notably a sprawling and immersive visual aesthetic, Metropolis was far from being embraced as an instant classic upon its release, some 90 years ago. The now famous line “The Mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart!” was a particular bone of contention for critics of the late 1920s and early ’30s who viewed the sentiment as an oversimplification of existent tensions between the working class proletariat and the privileged bourgeoisie.

The very idea that such disparate groups could ever find common ground was deemed unrealistic, even naïve. Among the most notable dissenters was English writer H.G. Wells, who dismissed it as “quite the silliest film.” But the most damning criticisms were lodged against the film’s alleged pro-fascist stance, the thrust of the narrative seemingly drawing parallels between the revolt against the aforementioned visionary Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Before diving into all of that, an interrogation of the narrative itself might be helpful. The story concerns itself primarily with the relationship between the good-hearted but privileged Feder (Gustav Fröhlich in his breakout role) and the poor prophet Maria (Brigitte Helm), who find themselves caught up in a bitter revolt inspired by a robot built in the likeness of the latter — the result of a scientific experiment carried out by the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). The robot, originally designed to replicate his beloved, is brought to life after Maria falls into Rotwang’s clutches at the behest of Joh, who senses growing unrest in the subterranean realm.

Of course, Joh is unaware of the inventor’s ulterior motives, as he actually plans to use the replicated Maria to destroy Metropolis. He plans to have her lead the workers in a violent uprising that will see the destruction of many machines, including The Heart Machine, which . . . well, you can probably guess why it’s important. In the heat of passion, the outraged leave their children behind in the wreckage for Feder and Maria to save before the city floods in the ensuing chaos.

Throughout the two-and-a-half hour running time (Metropolis manifests as one of cinema’s earliest full-length features and is indeed sizable even by today’s standards) we are bombarded with Biblical references and homages to Mary Shelley’s seminal science fiction Frankenstein. This seemingly incongruous mixture of elements, as set against the backdrop of the German expressionist movement, combines to form a uniquely visual tapestry that tends to obscure, rather than enhance, the beating heart of humanity at the film’s core.

Given this, Metropolis can hardly be deemed a film of subtlety. In fact it’s massively unsubtle. Lang’s suggestion of the apocalypse is a prime example. Feder’s vision of Maria riding a seven-headed beast confesses to the unfettered nature of period expressionism, and provides Lang’s most solid alibi for taking the film to so many different extremes. It’s altogether too much clutter. In a film where so many other dynamics are to be considered, heavy-handed interpretations of scripture seem, at best, superfluous.

I don’t view Metropolis as being overtly one thing or another. It’s a veritable amalgam of thematic material and visual spectacle. It’s about communism. No, it’s not — it’s about fascists. No it’s not, it’s about artificial intelligence. No wait, it’s about sinning and the second coming of Christ. I can’t fathom having to process all of this in a time where film reviews could only be found in the paper. At a time when the mobilization of the Nazis was an event taking place in the present. And while we’re on the subject, I also don’t subscribe to the notion that Metropolis supports Nazism. Perhaps there’s a reading here that the inevitable uprising in the lower ranks is a metaphor for the eventual birth and spread of fascism in Europe, but I don’t want to give that too much credit.

The fact that the film fails to shift its emotional weight convincingly proved most problematic for me. I was never convinced by Joh’s sudden concern for his son when violence took hold of society. Remorse for his oppressive leadership was never palpable during the hand-shake — the mediation, as it were, between the head of the city and its tired hands, here represented by the foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot (Heinrich George). Because Joh remained a fundamentally unchanged man come the end, I wasn’t able to buy the denouement as anything other than a physical commitment to honor the film’s thematic contract: Show that love can conquer all. (Even the most bitter ideological divides like class warfare.)

In the end, I liken Lang’s optimism to John Lennon’s insistence that all you need is love. In the context of the world in which we live, their idealism does seem naïve but for whatever reason it almost seems in poor taste to describe visionaries like them in such a way.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Feder, holding down the fort. For now.

Recommendation: Mightily ambitious and to a fault, Metropolis I find a film with much to praise and almost as much to criticize. And yet, considering the times in which it was released, I can’t do anything but admire it. A rare silent film viewing experience for me, one I’m glad I have finally had. Do I really need to recommend this movie to anyone . . . ?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 148 mins.

What the hell: Unemployment and inflation were so bad in Germany at the time that the producers had no trouble finding 500 malnourished children to film the flooding sequences.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

March Blindspot: Trainspotting (1996)

Release: Friday, August 9, 1996

[YouTube]

Written by: John Hodge

Directed by: Danny Boyle

One of the things I had presumed about Danny Boyle’s iconic drug drama Trainspotting was that it was really bleak, and it was that way from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong — this film is not happy, but I wasn’t expecting so much compassion. I wasn’t anticipating something that has such a reputation for being repulsive and controversial to actually be both those things while proving to be something far more substantial.

Of course Trainspotting has been embraced more by some cultures than it has by others. The film, released three years after Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh’s book was published, has become a cultural touchstone in the UK, which makes sense given its unapologetically brash attitude and self-deprecatory humor, dialogue that pierces through to the soul and yet still somehow comes across charming, even poetic. Really really darkly poetic. And utterly unpretentious at that. Despite the film mostly being shot in Glasgow, Welsh set the story in his native Edinburgh, circa the 1980s.

A densely compacted crop of historic and gorgeous stone edifice gouged into rugged green hillsides that contrast dramatically against the cerulean flats of the Water of Leith to the north, the Scottish capital is actually second only to London in terms of attracting European travelers. Yet underneath this façade of wealth and diversity and leisure lie both literal and metaphorically crumbling infrastructures, themes that take root in both Welsh’s novel and Boyle’s adaptation.

Trainspotting tells the story of a group of youths who struggle to overcome terrible drug addictions and who struggle even more with the stagnation that has creeped into their lives. The characters have become British icons: Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor), “Sick Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller), “Spud” (Ewen Bremner), Tommy (Kevin McKidd) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle, a.k.a. “Crazy Asshole”) are pottering around in the ghettos that have become of the urban development projects that were rife in the 1970s. After infrastructural standards dropped many of the buildings began to deteriorate and become neglected. This crumbling backdrop fills the frame with a sense of pessimism that’s hard to escape.

Around this time as well the proliferation of synthesized heroin was on the rise and drug abuse was starting to become an issue. The introduction of heroin wasn’t so much random as it was evidence of a worsening epidemic as opiates had long been ingrained in the culture, having been brought over to the Scottish shores as early as the late 1600s. Opium use had been fairly widespread, so perhaps it was only inevitable that other, more powerful opiates would become available. When we begin our journey in the film we’re at what feels like a threshold. We’re visiting a community hanging on by a thread as the popularity of heroin and the death toll created by its usage continue to increase.

McGregor’s particularly needle-happy “Rent-Boy,” wanting to make more of his life than thieving from the sick and the helpless so he can get high, acts as the driving force of emotion in a film that’s mostly (and intentionally) numb to such dumb things. (Who needs emotion when you have heroin?) His stream-of-consciousness-like voiceover clues us in to the particulars of being not just being a heroin user, but a heroin lover. Meanwhile his so-called mates around him provide the color commentary — especially Begbie. Begbie, he who “doesn’t do drugs” but “does people.” It’s all a vicious cycle, and the script by John Hodge proves remarkably adept at revealing that harsh reality.

The thing about Trainspotting is how effortlessly it comes across as authentic. It’s authentic, but the writing is so poignant and pained with certain truths about the inequity of the world that you might assume there’d be some level of affectedness that becomes apparent. Not once did I sense the kind of artsy/social conscientiousness that often makes indie darlings, even of similar subjects, targets of derision. There isn’t a false note in any of the performances. The caustic, stinging barbs that is the language in which they speak, while noxious, actually confesses to the humanity that is just begging to emerge from underneath yet another stupor.

If there’s one thing I’ve truly underestimated about this film, it’s that it would ever advocate for characters that are as wayward as these. But it really does want them . . . well, most of them, to succeed. It’s far more of a sympathetic film than I thought it would be. And all of this just makes Trainspotting that much better.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: A movie that moved the needle like this needs no recommendation from me. But to fill page space, it’s good. Addictive, really. I canNOT wait to see the sequel. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “1,000 years from now there will be no guys and no girls, just wankers. Sounds great to me.”

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Photo credits: http://www.alternativemovieposters.com; http://www.imdb.com 

February Blindspot: Alive (1993)

alive-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 15, 1993

[Netflix]

Written by: John Patrick Shanley

Directed by: Frank Marshall

I love a good survival story and while Alive certainly fits the description of survival story it’s neither a good movie nor one that I will ever love — a would-be toe-curling drama watered down by perhaps the softest R-rating in the history of cinema. And even though these sorts of films are never recognized for their achievement in performance, it is a surprisingly poorly acted affair.

It’s clear that for director Frank Marshall, striking the right tone was priority one, if not the only one. He crafts a fittingly solemn tribute to the Uruguayan rugby team whose charter plane crashed high in the Andes en route to a game in Chile on October 13, 1972, and who were ultimately forced to resort to cannibalism. Of the 45 passengers on board, only 16 lived to tell about it. Alive does champion the human spirit but it never manages to give the concept a face, and never allows the audience to identify on a more personal level with this account of individual and collective bravery.

The event has inspired a number of redressals, including the 1974 novel by award-winning English novelist Piers Paul Read, upon which John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay is based. His story wastes precious little time in acclimating the audience to team camaraderie as they anticipate the upcoming match on the flight over. After an admittedly harrowing crash sequence viewers come to experience over the course of two cinematic hours the same slow decay of flesh and hope for rescue the athletes endured for three brutal months.

Alive is a slow-going trudge through the psychological deterioration of youngsters caught in an unimaginable situation. It’s decidedly more suggestive than literal, failing to really dig beneath the surface of the social and philosophical dynamics at play. There’s something to be said about Marshall’s refusal to resort to gore, but the notion he would be exploiting these people by showing some visceral scenes of desperation is ridiculous. As it stands, the dramatization largely leaves the audience cold. Not unsympathetic, but uninvolved.

Alive employs a mostly unknown cast to portray the players — a decision that, in theory anyway, reinforces the notion that ordinary people are often capable of accomplishing extraordinary things in the face of life-altering circumstances. A young Ethan Hawke as Nando Parrado (one of the lucky 16 who served as a technical advisor on the production) stands out among the rest, not simply because he has more stuff to do but because he’s the only actor who convinces us that he is who he is playing.

In reality, the lack of experience in front of the camera does real damage to the film’s credibility. Low-rent acting and awkward dialogue are the main culprits but the use of some suspect, barbecue-chicken-looking props also make the cost-effective filmmaking strategies abundantly clear. The backdrop of the Andes, on the other hand, is quite convincing, with a number of atmospheric shots of a most hostile South American landscape in the grip of winter serving as a sobering reminder of our fragility.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

alive

2-0Recommendation: Disappointingly generic and horribly acted, Alive is in some ways the film I have suspected it of being for some time now. I’m not sure why it made my Blindspot list but at least now I have seen it. And if you haven’t yet, may I recommend instead the documentary based on this. Or perhaps pick up the book. Ethan Hawke is better than the rest but he doesn’t exactly save this from mediocrity.

Rated: R

Running Time: 126 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.moviescounter.com 

Blindspot Update!

Attention people — 

THERE’S BEEN A CHANGE! . . . re: my Blindspot 2017 line-up.

In anticipation of the Trainspotting sequel,* I am swapping out my March and May Blindspot entries so I will be able to see the original before checking out T2. That also means What About Bob? will now be pushed back to May.

Rumor has it the US of A gets the film early April, so that timing should work out perfectly. Of course, I live in New Jersey . . . . .

Click here if you want to check out my full Blindspot List.

* Also, at the behest of a particularly perceptive reader

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January Blindspot: Defiance (2009)

defiance-movie-posterrr

Release: Friday, January 16, 2009

[Netflix]

Written by: Edward Zwick; Clayton Frohman

Directed by: Edward Zwick

Defiance at the very least satisfies a certain curiosity I had about a film that featured Daniel Craig not in a suit and tie, and as of this posting — admittedly a time-sensitive and quite frankly rushed one — I feel more inclined to recommend it more on that basis rather than for its dramatic credentials. I mean, Defiance isn’t a bad film but it’s just not a great one and that’s kind of a shame.

Really, the most damning thing I can say about it is that in hindsight I would replace this film with something else for my January Blindspot — but, well, that wouldn’t make this a very blind Blindspot list, now, would it? Defiance is well-made but pretty forgettable, and while its lead man seems outwardly appropriate for the part of Tuvia Bielsky, a Polish Jew who helped thousands of refugees escape the death camps and ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe, Craig once again makes it obvious he works best in roles that don’t require him to adopt an accent. Yeesh.

When Edward Zwick’s film premiered in 2009 it apparently caused quite the kerfuffle. Polish columnists in particular brutalized Defiance, accusing it of the sorts of things directors like Peter Berg and Michael Bay are regularly found guilty of today: xenophobic tonality; the glorification of violence; the oversimplification of extraordinarily complex circumstances. I didn’t find Defiance damaging or incompetent as others have, but its issues are obvious. Despite the fertile historical ground in which his material is rooted, Zwick bogs down an urgent tale with direction that largely feels uninspired and repetitive.

As his film notes during the end credits, the Bielski partisans — four brothers who amassed a secret community of some 1,200 homeless Jews in the depths of the sprawling Naliboki Forest, a near impenetrable mass of evergreen and marshland encompassing northwestern Belarus — never sought recognition for their heroic actions during some of the darkest days in human history. Zwick felt it was high time they received a little.

The narrative primarily focuses on the rift that develops between the two eldest brothers, Tuvia and Zus (Liev Schreiber) who, when brutal, violent oppression finally hits home differ in opinion over how they should respond. Tuvia, despite an early scene of bloody retaliation, insists on avoiding confrontation and becomes the de facto leader of the camp. Zus on the other hand feels strongly about seeking vengeance and joins a local Communist troupe, vowing to take the fight right to the Nazis.

The events depicted in Defiance occur over the course of a year. We watch as conditions within Tuvia’s faction deteriorate as winter sets in and as impending Nazi forces constantly force them to move around within the forest. They battle against starvation, exposure and the inevitable in-fighting as the need to stay hidden intensifies with each passing day. We cut back and forth between this sad scene and Zus’ predicament as he finds himself surrounded by “comrades” who don’t necessarily share the same sympathies toward the Jewish refugees. They do, however, eventually agree to provide much-needed medicine to Tuvia in exchange for help in knocking out a radio transmitter that is interfering with the Russian’s communications.

The film rides a fairly strong wave of emotion on the back of solid performances most notably from Craig, Schreiber and Jamie Bell, the latter finding a way to come into his own as he finds himself mounting a last-ditch defensive stand when German tanks appear in their neck of the woods. (Sorry.) Mia Wasikowska also leaves an impression as a love interest for Bell’s courageous Asael. Their blossoming romance quickly yields a wedding ceremony in one of the film’s defining moments, a tender act of love nestled at the heart of a narrative shrouded in darkness.

I’d feel better closing this piece on a note of positivity rather than with more complaints about how the film perpetually shirks its responsibility of authenticating events as detailed in the 1993 novel by Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, upon which Zwick’s movie is based. Of galvanizing survivors with a story that does history proper justice. Defiance isn’t that film. It’s something more closely associated with typical action fare, with the kinds of movies you expect Daniel Craig to star in. As Tuvia he is more James Bond than Moses.

No, allow me instead to wax poetic about the film’s visuals for an easy out. Even several days after, that wedding ceremony remains burned into my memory. The snow coming down, in all its cheesiness. The intimate gathering. The golden sunlight. Eduardo Serra’s camerawork simply stuns; he seizes the opportunity to capture the forest in all its eerie beauty, offering Defiance this compelling but disturbing dichotomy between the enchanting allure of nature and the ugliness of humanity. Who would have thought we would have ever heard the words ‘Mazel tov’ uttered in this place, in this time?

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defiance-2

3-0Recommendation: I can’t help but feel disappointed by Defiance but this is far from a bad movie. It just isn’t a very ambitious one. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell are the clear stand-outs (even if the former’s accent is horrendous at the best of times). But as a visual display, the film earns a fairly strong recommendation from yours truly. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

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