Monday, April 30, 2007

DVD Roundup: Smokin' Aces

I wanted to see this because it contains one of my all-time favorit action film conceits: a bunch of different hitmen trying to kill the same guy at the same time. Much like one of my other all-time favorite films conceits: the zombie apocalypse, it hasn't really been nailed to my satisfaction in any movie yet. Smokin' Aces comes as close as any movie yet has to scratching my "hitman orgy" itch. It's got a relatively interesting and disparate group of killers, it does a pretty good job of ratcheting up the tension as more and more killers converge on the Lake Tahoe penthouse of mob magician Jeremy Piven, and there's some sick-ass gun play, including a sequence with a Barret .50 caliber sniper rifle that convinced me that every single film ever made could be improved by the addition of a Barret .50 caliber sniper rifle blowing people away. What's wrong with the movie isn't that its a mindless gun-fest, it's that the movie tries too hard to be more than a mindless gun-fest. Writer-director Joe Carnahan, who was hailed as a neo-noir auteur of note after his debut film Narc, seems to think that he has to justify the blood and spent shell casings with pathos and plot twists. Movies like this are why we need to resurrect the Grindhouse spirit: since there are technically no more "B" movies that make it to theaters anymore, everybody feels the need to make sure their films reach a minimum standard of "film quality." Too bad the "quality" elements are inevitably clunky and lame and just end up highlighting the movies' general lack of quality. If you cut out that shit and focus on making the gunfights as ludicriously over-the-top as possible (how about the hitmen all start shootiing at each other in the middle of a convention center full of Shriners?--it is Tahoe, after all--), you'll have a movie that is truly memorable and truly kickass instead of a monument to partially-realized awesomeness.

Score: 7.0

DVD Roundup: The Last King of Scotland

The consensus view of this one is: Forest Whitaker is awesome, the rest of the movie is mediocre. I disagree. Forest Whitaker is awesome, and the rest of the movie is infuriating, awful horseshit. The propensity of films about Africa to end up starring white people is a long-time annoyance to me, and this movie is the absolute most egregious case I've ever seen. The reign of Idi Amin is just not compelling on its own merits, it only gains relevance if it is observed by a white protagonist whose character arc is the most important thing happening on the screen at any given moment. It's bad enough that the main character is a white hanger-on, and that the tragedy of Amin's rule is considered less momentous than this white dude's angst, but the white dude in question is a callow dickhead, who never even evolves much. And to top it off, when the white guy is in danger of being killed at the end, a noble, selfless, and utterly one dimensional black character steps forward to trade his life for the white guys' life. "Why are you doing this?" asks the white guy. "I don't know" is all that the black martyr can manage. The real answer is: because the script demands that this asshole live, because his pain is the only pain that matters and his half-assed 'journey' is the only character development that matters.

Score: 5.0

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Vacany is proof that you can make a horror film that is genuinely scary, doesn't rely on prolonged torture scenes, and isn't a remake of a 70s-era American/90s-00s-era Japanese flick. Director Nimrod Antal (I know, it's an awesome name) successfully mines the "snuff film" notion for a lot of creeps and jolts, which are made even more effective by the deployment of significantly more character depth than is usually found in horror movies. He does this by having the sack to use precious minutes of this tight and economical 80 minute film on wordless moments between estranged couple Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale. The film even manages to throw in a few narrative cureballs that subvert your genre expectations. This is the rarest of creatures: a horror film you can rent for an evening and not have to worry about having your intelligence insulted or force yourself to enjoy the movie "ironically."

Score: 7.5

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Hot Fuzz

I'm just going to come right out and say it: the Wright/Pegg/Frost filmmaking combination behind Shaun of the Dead and the new and kick-ass Hot Fuzz are the finest practictioners of film comedy currently working. Now, that's not to say that they make the funniest comedies around (though they're definitely in the top tier humor-wise), but that they make the most well-rounded comedy films around. Most American comedies are unfunny, disjointed dreck. The few humor-wizards with plus five mirth-making ability, such as Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin, the upcoming and incredibly hilarious looking Knocked Up) are great at bringing in the funny, but that's generally all they're great at. Plot, character development and camera work generally take a back seat to comic hijinx. That's why even the funniest American comedies rely on genre conventions that arrive with prefabricated plot points, like "dude on quest to get laid," "dude on quest to reunite with girlfriend" and "sports dude." In these movies, the plot is merely a spine on which to lard long scenes of improvised tomfoolery and scenes like the climactic car race in Talladegga Nights, for example, exist merely to wrap up the necessary but unenthusicatically pursued plot arc and don't connect to the comedic themes of the rest of the movie (assuming there is anything connecting the randomn silliness enough to call it a "theme").

What makes the Wright/Pegg/Frost combo so exciting and so awesome is that these comedic masterminds make complete comedies in which the plot, characters and cinematography all work together to reenforce the film's concept. This was true of the brilliant, hilarious, and brilliantly hilarious 2004 ass-kicker Shaun of the Dead, and it's even more true of the recently released and cream-dreamy action comedy Hot Fuzz. Hot Fuzz isn't a parody in the broad, literal sense of shit-sickles like Epic Movie, but rather a total immersion experience in the filmmaking tropes, character interactions, dialogue and plot devices of the American meat-head action movie. It makes the experience of watching the movie more rewarding, the jokes are richer, and when you get a sly verbal or visual reference, it makes you smile as much for it's unexpected cleverness as for the intrinsic humor. You leave the movie humming with appreciation for movie-makers who respect the material they're riffing on enough to do it justice with a fully-realized tribute, rather than a string of disconnected, if funny, gags.

Score: 9.2

Monday, April 16, 2007

Seriously, America, you suck.

So Grindhouse, the most face-meltingly awesome theatrical film experience of the decade, is released to a collective huh? by the slack-jawed numb-nutses of our great nation, collecting less than twenty million dollars in two weeks, meanwhile a teeny-bopper rip off of Rear Window makes more than that in its first weekend. Normally, I don't give two shits about box office receipts, but Tarantino and Rodriguez have publically stated that a positive reception of Grindhouse would lead to more double-features in the future. Instead, a bunch of theaters are de-coupling Planet Terror and Death Proof, reducing the awesomeness factor of both films by a solid 75% in the process and pretty much guaranteeing that Grindhouse will go down as a failed experiment thanks to the teeming legions of dullards who shuffle, herd-like to the cinema each weekend.
Eat a dick, America.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Simply put: if this movie had a dick, I'd let it fuck me in the ass.

Seriously, Grindhouse is an jaw-dropping, face-melting, ball-draining, colon-cleansing festival of ass-kickery. Watching this movie in a theater full of usually-jaded hipsters in the middle of the night and being completely transported and riveted and to feed off the electric current of an audience collectively digging something to a transcendant degree was a once in a lifetime moment. It resurrected the idea of a moviegoing experience in a way that was almost spiritual. Goddamn, man, just great, great shit. Awesome.

On a semi-coherent note, I was originally bummed when I found out that Planet Terror was the first half of the double bill because that was the movie I was more excited about seeing, but after actually watching the movies, I realize that the pacing and order were perfect. Planet Terror is a pure grindhouse sleaze-fest and it goes from zero to one hundred and fifty in about two seconds, then doesn't let up on the pedal for ninety minutes. By the time it's finished, your head is swimming and any more outrageousness would fall victim to the law of diminishing returns. So, when Death Proof kicks off with a good twenty minute "people sitting around talking in circles interspersed with shots of women's feet" Tarantino special, it gives you a chance to catch your breath and build tension, so that when the car crashes and car chases and nail biting action start, they have a potent cumulative effect. If Death Proof came first, it would totally kill your buzz. Instead, the talky parts serve as a sort of sorbet between the awesomeness and make the ending, which is pulse-pounding and hilarious and cheer-worthy in its own right, even more exhilerating due to the catharsis involved. Death Proof isn't the commited similacrum of grindhouse cinema that Planet Terror is, but that ends up working in favor of the whole project: two balls-to-the-wall splatterfests would be too much to take one right after the other. By slowing things down, Tarantino makes Rodriguez's film all the more memorably cool, and makes the ending of his own movie even more of a punch in the chest.

So, to sum up: awesome.

Score: 10

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Children of Fast Food Nelson

The cattle huddle in vast pens, pressed fast against one another, thousands to the acre, fed anti-biotics and cow blood, expelling fifty pounds of solid and liquid waste a day into local waterways, until the grim moment arrives and they are led, one by one, up the wooden gangplank and onto the kill floor. Workers there stand by to fire metal bolts into the base of the cow’s neck. The animal writhes through its death throes on the grated floor before being lifted by its haunches and suspended on a conveyor line, where its head is removed, its organs are pulled out and its skin is mechanically torn away from its body by chains. The prime cuts are separated from the rest, and the rest is fed into a meat grinder, pressed into paddies that are flash frozen, shipped to restaurants across the country, and wolfed down by a cross section of Americans.

This is the literal machinery of the fast food industry, the conveyor belts and bolt guns and grinders and rotating blades, and it is revealed to queasy effect in the climactic scene of Richard Linklater’s film Fast Food Nation. The scene is gross and disturbing, but by no means is it the most disturbing thing in the movie. Fast Food Nation’s real accomplishment is laying bear the machinery of American corporate capitalism that grinds up people as surely as it does cows. People like the illegal immigrants who literally risk life and limb to butcher cattle at the meatpacking plants, the underpaid teens who man this great nation’s fry-o-lators, the customers blithely shoveling poison down their throats; it’s a machine that has nothing to do with burgers and everything to do with extracting maximum profit from every living thing on the planet. This machine’s effects are everywhere: from the fetid shit lakes of factory farm run-off to the sterile miles of homogenized suburban real estate where big box retailers and chain restaurants reproduce at a frenzied rate. Fast food is only a small cog in the mighty engine of profit, but the complete and irredeemable venality of the industry makes it symbolically poignant: the system is inhumane to the animals it slaughters, it fills rivers and lakes with raw animal sewage, it exploits and endangers workers, it turns the lived environment into a joyless procession of identical, florescent-lit nightmares of Formica, and the final product, the point of all this, is a so-called food that leaves its consumers fat, sick and malnourished. The only thing of value produced by this system is corporate profit. Except for shareholders, there are no winners in this industry. It’s that logic, the supremacy of profit over any human considerations, that fuels the machine.

Linklater’s film is an extended critique of capitalism, showing at every turn where individual agency is undermined by the expediencies of the market. Illegal immigrants, student radicals, even top level executives at the fast food companies themselves are essentially powerless to successfully stop or even slow the workings of the machine. The film’s diagnosis is sobering: the logic of capitalism is so deeply internalized, invisibly governs so many of our day to day decisions, that we are basically slaves to it. Our degree of personal autonomy varies depending upon the rung we occupy on the economic ladder, but as individuals we are all destined to live in the same rationalized, mechanized universe. This sense of futility is best symbolized in a scene of young environmentalists cutting through fences in an attempt to liberate future burgers from captivity. The cows don’t move.

Fast Food Nation was released with little fanfare and little commercial or critical notice last year, and that makes sense: it’s not only a bracing indictment of capitalism, it’s a basically hopeless one. The film’s failure is a shame, because the world it paints for its audience is a reflection of the gray assembly line world we inhabit, and the film provides a prism through which to view two other 2006 releases, Half Nelson and Children of Men. Both of these films seem to be reacting to the hopelessness of Fast Food Nation and the questions it raises.

Berkley Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio made a moving speech about the necessity of resistance to the machinery of war and capitalism in 1969. He said “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!" High school history teacher Ryan Gosling shows his inner city students a clip of this quote about halfway through the film Half Nelson and, afterwards, asks them what Savio means by “the machine.” He’s trying to get the students to being the process of questioning and resisting authority. It doesn’t take long in this Socratic dialogue for one of Gosling’s students to point out that, as a white, male representative of the public school system and, by extension, the government, Gosling himself is part of the machine. With a smile, he reminds the students that, since they’re in the school, they’re part of the machine, too.

So the teacher wants to inspire his charges to the necessity of struggle against corrupt authority…except that he is one of the signal representatives of authority in their lives, and he only gets to teach them at all because of the coercive power of the state. It’s enough to make a motherfucker start smoking some crack. And so, Gosling does some a whole bunch of crack in Half Nelson, and while the galaxy of demons that drive him to do this are not fully explained, chief among them is the daily, gut-churning frustration of wanting to lay himself against the gears of a system that has no machinery, that ticks away serenely inside the mind of every person in the country, including those most committed to its destruction. The machine that Richard Linklater deconstructs in Fast Food Nation is the same one that drives Ryan Gosling into despairing drug use in Half Nelson, which ends with a marked sense of ambiguity, the question left hanging: ‘what’s going to become of this guy? ‘ Will he flame out in a blaze of self destruction, will he eventually make peace with the acts of personal good that he can accomplish in life, or, worst of all, will be stop caring completely and content himself with getting on to get along.

When the audience is introduced to Theo Faron, the character played by Clive Owen in Children of Men, he has opted for door number three: slouching through a life of cheap cynicism and bureaucratic drudgery after giving up his youthful activism. He has glimpsed the mighty power of the invisible machine and resigned himself to the petty pleasures of the day-to-day. In effect, his relationship to the system is identical to that of the vast majority of Americans (myself included). Alfonso Cuaron’s film takes a science fiction trope, it’s set in the year 2027, eighteen years after the last baby was born, to illustrate the extent to which we in the first world are able to numb ourselves to the brutalities and injustices of the machine. The fast-motion social destabilization caused by the immanent extinction of the human race has brought the “conquest abroad and repression at home” that anthropologist Stanley Diamond once said characterize civilization out of the shadows and into the daylight of a first world capital. Many of us who despair of the present system comfort ourselves with the thought that widespread complacency with capital and imperial exploitation arise from ignorance (“If only people knew what was going on!”) Children of Men disrupts that notion by showing us a character, Theo, who fought in the street against the authorities in the pre-crisis era, and who now strolls blithely through train stations lined with cages filled with weeping refugees and guarded by German shepherds and gun-toting cops. The commitment to change that drove Theo to struggle with every breath against a system that kept its violence invisible to his class, race and sex, has been demoralized by an endless string of defeats and personal tragedy. Now, he acquiesces to a society where the machinery of oppression is naked and in the streets of London. Theo is, essentially, Ryan Gosling’s character in twenty years or so: dried up and deracinated by the sheer invulnerability of the machine to the will of well intentioned individuals.

What makes Children of Men unique among the 2006 films that dealt with the social and psychological consequences of capitalist machinery is that it is a narrative of resurgent hope, rather than futility. The hope of Children of Men arises from its focus on the human capacity for empathy, and the attendant flowering of conscience. No amount of cynicism or bitter experience of defeat can deter someone motivated by a connection with another human being. And so, you have the main cause of my mini-breakdown upon viewing Children of Men: a creeping suspicion that I am not capable of the sort of boundless humanism that motivates people to rise above the seeming hopelessness of the system to devote themselves to ending it, and a lead-pipe certainty that I would keep living a life of petty day-to-day pleasures. Maybe I should start smoking crack.

Blades of Glory

Will Ferrell movies are the cinematic equivalent of a 1992 Toyota Carrolla: blunt, inelegant, but it gets you there. Blades of Glory, like Anchorman and Talladegga Nights before it, is a shapeless, largely random and sloppy comedy based around a distinct, easily riff-able mileau: in this case, it's figure skating. Like those films, it's pretty damn funny, largely because of Ferrell's committment to his goofy-ass character, and a lot of well-deployed spandex.

Score: 7.5

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Host

This movie is being called the asian Jaws, but that doesn't seem very accurate to me. For one thing, water-based monster hijinx are relatively few and far between. Most of the action takes place on land, including an absolutely stunning daylight attack by the titular amphibious monster that is unlike any scene in a horror film I've yet encountered: a bold and resoundingly successful choice. There's a nice mix of suspense and humor, with a touch too much melodrama (someone needs to let asian filmmakers know that the film score doesn't have to swell to unbearable crescendos of pathos every time a character picks his nose). Also, a nice patina of anti-Americanism, which I always find welcome (no, I'm not being sarcastic: there is a startingly dearth of anti-Americanism in world cinema these days. Everybody on the planet deservedly hates us, but you wouldn't tell it from the movies that they make. Step up your game, foreigners!)

Score: 7.4