Saturday, January 25, 2014

Brad's Week in Dork! (1/12/14-1/18/14)

Wow, I really knocked em out this week.  A double feature of Dr. Strangelove & Buckaroo Banzai at The Alamo on Sunday launched me into a Peter Weller-A-Thon I was not expecting to partake.  But then the retail plague took over my life, and I pretty much bunkered down in the apartment, and did nothing else except watch movies.  Not too different from my normal day to day activities, just accelerated.  Next week I need to get back to my comics, gotta finish Sailor Twain for book club, and Grant Morrison's Animal Man is singing her siren song.

Dr. Strangelove Or - How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb:  Yikes.  This is one angry film.  Behind every snarky laugh, or straight up goofy punchline, you can feel the daggers of Stanley Kubrick's white hot rage.  Not at the (doomsday) machine, but at the careless dolts who run it.  The underground politicians, the meek military minions who should know better, the marching order pilots with the bomb between their legs - there are a million and one scenarios that could save us from total annihilation, but we can't be bothered to back down.  Dr Strangelove is a tremendously silly movie with bumbling fools named Jack D Ripper & Bat Guano helping our way to THE END, but every chuckle is accompanied by a pang of guilt.  On this latest rewatch I was reminded of the recent assault from Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street.  Both films are comedies by way of auteur wrath - searing condemnations against America's head-in-the-sand populace.  No wonder Strangelove drove The Wife to tears, as the credits rolled she could not bring her self to eek one giggle while a Nazi Scientists sprung to life, and mushroom clouds littered the landscape.  Hi-Larious?  God no.  But...yes.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension:  James Bond.  Indiana Jones.  Buckaroo Banzai.  The holy trinity of cool.  These are the guys 8 year old Brad wanted to grow up to be, role models for my developing morality and lady killer destiny.  The thing is though, he may not be as popular these days, but Buckaroo Banzai has Bond & Jones beat in the coolness department.  Not just a super spy or a nazi smashing archeologist (although I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Banzai's done a bit of that too), Buckaroo is a bestselling rock 'n' roll scientist neurosurgeon adventurer who breaks dimensional barriers as easy as ringing a bell.  Possibly the first film to truly understand the appeal of a comic book universe, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai drops its audience into its wild world of Red Lectoids & watermelons, and lets you catch up rather than explaining its peculiarities.  That's a lesson more movies should learn; it's not about the origin, it's about the hero in the thick of it, whether it's Buckaroo Banzai, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Superman, Spider-Man, or The Wolverine.  So, is the world finally ready for a rebooted Buckaroo Banzai Against The World Crime League?  Probably not.  The 1980s seems like the only decade to properly spring such oddball fruit, but I'm willing to watch if you're will to try Hollywood.

Leviathan:  Such a wannabe film.  John Carpenter's The Thing + James Cameron's Aliens = nice try.  But it's fun to watch George P Cosmatos work out his aspirations.  Peter Weller is obviously the best thing about this movie - his One Minute Manager struggling to handle his asshole minions (I'm looking at your Daniel Stern!), and that's before the fishy genetic monstrosity starts downsizing the staff.  It's a goofy movie with an obviously shoddy practical effect hiding in the shadows, but there is enough charm in the players to make Leviathan a passable movie night.  The question remains, is Deep Star Six the superior aquatic retread?  It's been a decade or two, but I think I'll side with Leviathan - gotta snag Deep Star for the rewatch.

Robocop:  "Somewhere there is a crime happening."  How many times have I watched Robocop?  50? 100?  A lot is the answer.  I don't even know how to talk about it anymore.  It's hilarious.  It's badass.  It's genius.  Paul Verhoeven directed both a sendup of consumerism and a righteous action film filled with the best bloodwork of the 1980s.  Kurtwood Smith and his gang of tyrants are possibly the scariest batch of hoods in cinema history, and I find it impossible to separate myself from the first time I saw them butcher Officer Murphy with their cackling shotgun fire.  It's the first murder on screen that truly disturbed me as a child, and for years I could not watch the movie without fastforwarding through the opening execution.  I don't know what Jose Padilha's remake has to offer, but a PG-13 shoot 'em up seems to miss the point of Verhoeven's massacre.  Robocop is a heightened attack on Gordon Gecko's America, and if you loose yourself in the torrents of red, you might miss the giant middle finger stretching out from the Netherlands.  But it is also undeniably a glorious genre picture with cyborgs and CEOs.

Of Unknown Origin:  Certainly one of the strangest forgotten gems of yesteryear.  Peter Weller is Bart Hughes, a yuppie businessman climbing the corporate ladder while basking in the success of his recent town house renovation.  Everything is just gravy until a beastly little rat tears a hole in his dishwasher's drainage line.  A small beginning that quickly escalates to all out war between vermin and man.  Don't believe the trailers or the poster.  Yes, this is a horror film.  But there is not mutant monster here.  No supernatural terror.  The villain here is simply an NYC rat and Peter Weller's deteriorating sanity.  As much as I enjoy films like Tombstone, Cobra, Leviathan, and First Blood Part II, Of Unknown Origin is George P Cosmatos's masterpiece.  This is a claustrophobic siege film in which the terror burrows up from within, the rat in the walls as well as the one nibbling inside Weller's brain.  Another film scratching at the villainy of greed, and possibly the best character to showcase Weller's talent - the entire film thrives on his ability to crumble in front of us.  No one talks about Of Unknown Origin, but now is the time for its moment in the sun.  The DVD is long out of print, but you can snag one pretty much anywhere for less than 10 bucks.  It's worth the blind buy.

Lone Survivor:  This is a tough movie.  And it sparks complicated emotions from this viewer.  It's a helluva story.  Based on the book by Marcus Luttrell and ghostwriter Patrick Robinson, four Navy seals battle it out against a hundred Taliban soldiers in the mountains of the Kunar provence, after they release a shepherd and his two sons from their custody.  The film is absolutely punishing.  Obviously, the title is a spoiler, and you go into the story knowing that these guys are doomed.  It's nearly a sadomasochistic act waiting and watching these guys catch bullets in their bodies and crash down the mountainside.  My heart was in my throat for the entire film, but when the Afghan Villagers took up arms against the Taliban I suddenly felt the pangs of the "Based On A True Story" hypocrisy.  All films are fiction.  Whether their narrative or documentary.  A camera is present, so is a storyteller.  There might be truth to be found, but Lone Survivor is not a FACT, and it bothers me when people react to "True Stories" as Truth.  The machine gunning villagers just felt wrong, and the movie absolutely fell apart for me at that point.  Marcus Luttrell committed a noble act in bringing this story to the public.  He wanted to tell the story of those friends he left on the mountain.  But it's also big business now.  He's making a lot of money on this tragedy, and however virtuous his action may be, that collection of wealth bothers me a little.  And the liberties the film takes nag on me.  The film Lone Survivor is certainly a rousing saga of military triumph, and I'm weary of criticizing something that has become so (wrongfully) politically charged.  But Lone Survivor is a fiction - like Saving Private Ryan, The Dirty Dozen, and Battleship.  Filmmaker Peter Berg seriously loves and respects the armed forces, so do I, but I'm reaching a point where our blind belief in the True Story distracts from what should simply be a Good Story.  And I recognize this as a weird (possibly hypocritical) point of view coming from the guy who put Pain & Gain on his Top Ten Films last year.  Like I said at the start, complicated emotions here.

Bottle Rocket:  In anticipation of the March release of The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Wife and I decided to work our way through Wes Anderson's films in chronological order.  She had never seen Bottle Rocket before, and my last (& only) experience with Anderson's first movie was a negative one.  Not sure what my initial problem was, but on this second go-round I really took to Luke Wilson's romantic plight - it feels like a dry run on to the mentally fragile heartache found later in The Royal Tenenbaums.  Is there another actor out there who can pull of Sweet as perfectly as Luke Wilson?  Every expression, a bird's broken wing.  Owen Wilson is also fantastic as the film's bad influence.  He's an imp, a sad creature desperate to remain attached to his childhood buddy.  I'll take a million Dignans over one You, Me, & Durpee.  It's impressive how well formed Wes Anderson's world already is in this first venture into filmmaking, even when he's still working out his artificial world - the slomo, the soundtrack layering, the color palette.  Some herky jerky story beats, but Bottle Rocket succeeds more often than it fails.

You're Next:  John Carpenter's name gets thrown around a lot when talking about this festival crowd pleaser, but it's less Michael Myers then it is Assault on Precinct 13.  What begins as a run-of-the-mill stalk & slash cabin film quickly transforms into a root 'em, toot 'em table-turner in which Sharni Vinson steps up to the predatory challenge.   In that regard, the film actually feels like a tip of the hat to Ridley Scott's Alien - a haunted house picture in which the likely heroes are dispatched and the audience is left with one badass Final Girl to cheer on.  You're Next is not a peek-from-the-cover horror, it's an action fist-pumper worthy of your raucous popcorn screams.

Short Term 12:  VODed this in the middle of the week, and I'm left curious as to why this film ranked at the top of several critic's Best Lists last year.  Brie Larson is the lead supervisor of a residential treatment facility, not quite juvenile detention, and certainly not a hospital.  Got a problem child?  Dump 'em here.  Shortly after college I spent some time teaching English & Creative Writing at a private school for troubled kids, and I felt a lot of those frustration pangs rise to the surface while watching this movie.  However, I never connected with Larson's relationship troubles or her twenty something worries.  I don't flat out reject this film the way I did Frances Ha, but I also recognize that the psychological troubles of youth do not interest me anymore (if they ever did).  There is sweetness in this story, and some strong performances.  It probably is Brie Larson's best work to date and I look forward to future roles.

Thief:  "Lie to no one."  After penning some solid teleplays for shows like Starsky & Hutch and Police Story, Michael Mann entered cinemaland with a straight up crime classic.  James Caan's journeyman thief has a lot in common with Richard Stark's Parker series - he's just there for the job.  Don't get in his way, and he'll pay you no nevermind.  Stand between him and his score, or him and prison, and you'll get dropped quick.  Mann is obviously entranced by the process of burglary, and his camera lingers on the minutia of the job.  The director is obsessed with getting the fiction right.  He goes as far as placing known thieves in the roles of detectives, and actual Chicago cops in the roles of henchmen (the most famous being Dennis Farina).  The film is slick as hell, with some gorgeous night shooting that tingles with Tangerine Dream's neon synth score.  I've seen this film a handful of times, but the 4K Restoration on the new Criterion Blu Ray reveals an array of details I'd never noticed before (ex. Caan's sideburn scar), and it's essential for fans of the underworld subgenre.

Elite Squad - The Enemy Within:  Picking up several years after the first film, Wagner Moura is still heading up Rio De Janeiro's Elite Squad despite a dissolved marriage and a son drifting into liberal ideology.  His second in command Andre Ramiro is a Frankenstein Monster of sorts, and when a prison riot escalates into a quick-trigger assassination the Brazilian people turn against Moura's necessary fascism.  Just when you though Rio was a Dante-like Inferno, the government corruption sinks to new horrific depths, and no white shining morality goes unscathed.  The Enemy Within is a solid sequel to the original horror show, but I feel about it the same way I feel about The Godfather Part II - I got the gist in the first film, and I pretty much already saw where this film was going to take its demons after the original's credits rolled.  Again, the message being, don't go to Rio.

Twenty Feet From Stardom:  For the first time ever, I have already seen all of the Best Picture films nominated for the Academy Awards.  The only categories I need to bone up on are Best Actress & Supporting Actress (gotta see August: Osage County), Best Animated Film (haven't seen a single nom), and just two films in the Best Documentary Category - both of which I tackled this week.  Twenty Feet From Stardom is a fluffy, glorified VH1 Behind The Music about the unsung background singers behind Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, etc.  It's fun enough.  Lethal Weapon's Darlene Love naturally being the highlight for me.  However, the idea that this is the frontrunner, when powerhouse docs like The Act of Killing & The Square (see below) are standing next to it seems like another idiotic example of America's head-in-the-sand mentality.  After all, another feel-good musical, Searching For Sugarman, took home the gold guy instead of the far superior, socially conscious docs like 5 Broken Cameras & How To Survive A Plague.

The Driver:  "I'm going to catch the cowboy that's never been caught...dessssspperado..."  Ryan O'Neal is an impossible to catch getaway driver who captures the dogged determination of police detective Bruce Dern after one too many successful robberies.  Too bad Dern is not the star.  His wildman cuckoo routine is endlessly watchable, but O'Neal is a big sack of human boredom.  His dead eyed stares are less cool then they are annoyingly dull.  The man has no emotion.  He drifts through the screenplay, playing googoo eyes with the mysteriously sultry Isabelle Adjani, but things don't get exciting until he hands the reigns over to the stunt drivers.  Walter Hill knows how to crash a car.  When the engines are racing, and the various array of cardboard boxes are getting smashed, The Driver is certainly watchable.  And again, Bruce Dern spitting foul hate and screaming whacko at his mollycoddle partner is delightful.  Watch his movie, ignore O'Neal's, and you can have a good time with The Driver.

A Fantastic Fear of Everything:  Simon Pegg plays a disgraced children's author who abandons talking hedgehogs for London's most vile serial killers.  Unfortunately, his exploration of the Jack The Rippers of this world has driven him into a catatonic state of agoraphobia (as well as various other maladies).  Who doesn't love Simon Pegg?  Assholes.  But I gotta admit that he makes poor picture choices outside of his Edgar Wright pairings (Star Trek & Paul not withstanding).  A Fantastic Fear of Everything has its moments thanks to Pegg's commitment to fear, but the story deteriorates into a mediocre mystery involving launderettes and finger chopping.  I wanted to love it, but after I finish typing this sentence, the film will most likely drop from my memory immediately.

The Square: In 2011, Egyptian filmmaker Jehane Noujaim was determined to document the people's revolution, in which thousands of Christians & Muslims gathered in the Tahrir Square in Cairo in an effort to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak.  But once they succeed...The King Is Dead, Long Live The King.  Noujaim had several years to record these events, and The Square practically takes us up to the present day, and thanks to Netflix it can stream into your home tonight.  Idealists find their cause shaken, but not shattered.  What is victory?  What is loss?  It's a powerful piece of journalism, and if not for the revelatory experience that is The Act of Killing, I'd give Oscar to The Square.

Drive:  "You look like you're hard to work with."  What is this?  My tenth rewatch?  Sounds about right.  This time around I can't help but see the influence of both The Driver & Thief.  The opening scene is a straight up lifted from Walter Hill, and Ryan Gosling's anonymous wheelman has the facebashing meanness of James Caan mixed with Ryan O'Neal's don't-give-a-shit blankness.  Drive is homage cinema, and I'm not sure it quite elevates it the way a Tarantino film can sometime achieve.  But it's slick, cool, and twisted.  It respects its characters enough to take them through the black hole of violence and leave them appropriately shattered.  Until that last breath in the second to last shot.  Hope?  In a Refn picture???  Yep.  This is also my first time through the film post-Breaking Bad & Inside Llewyn Davis, so I found myself paying close attention to both Bryan Cranston & Oscar Isaac.  Cranston's gimpy Shannon is light years away from Walter White, a soft low-rent entrepreneur who shakes hands with all the wrong people.  Almost from the moment he walks on screen you know he's fish bait.  Isaac's reformed convict is just a puppy dog.  It's a cliche story the audience doesn't bother to sympathize with because it's simply the catalyst to spring Gosling's Driver into action.  Still, I believe every word he says at his Welcome Home party.  Drive is a fun crime film.  But it's no Only God Forgives, a film that currently ranks at the top of Refn's work for me.

The Dark Knight Trilogy:  "There are many forms of immortality."  Are you ready?  Christopher Nolan's Batman Saga is my absolute favorite cinematic trilogy.  Sorry to Star Wars, The Godfather, and The Lord of the Rings.  All fine films, but The Dark Knight Trilogy is the only set of films that takes its material as seriously as the comic books.  This is Frank Miller's world, Neal Adams's world, Jeph Loeb's world, etc, etc.  Batman Begins is still my favorite of the batch.  It's the only story (including comic books and animated series) to truly detail the psychology of Bruce Wayne.  The use of fear is exceptional - young Bruce's fear of bats essentially kills his parents, that fear becomes his weapon, and Ra's Al Ghul uses it to assault the people of Gotham.  Of course the Scarecrow has to be involved.  The Dark Knight is the only comic book film to up the villain ante and succeed.  The Joker is Gotham's response to the presence of The Bat Man and the dream of Harvey Dent's savior smashing upon the rocks.  And The Dark Knight Rises takes the saga to its epic heights with the siege of the city dropping its players into a Dickensonian nightmare.  The films are not without their flaws, like any trilogy, but I can forgive the exposition and the questionable shakey cam battles and even the leaps in logic.  I am simply thankful for the gravitas Nolan grants these characters.  An epic worthy of David Lean.


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