Wednesday, September 11, 2013

2013 in Flicks: August

Antiviral - Brandon Cronenberg - Syd has a nasty virus. He's been taking his work home with him and it's catching up with his poor, abused immune system. Syd's a salesman who deals in viruses and his extracurricular activities aren't just highly lucrative and highly illegal, they're potentially deadly. This is the most perverse thing I've seen in a good long while. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Fucking excellent. A sterile flick about germs. A study of celebrity/saint worship from a child of fame. So damn many beautiful touches of perfect awfulness. Mutilation and adoration of flesh, a techno-religious experience. I really don't want to say anything more about the content of the picture because it is all so deliciously wrong, that one of the chief pleasures is letting it unfold without any expectations to live up to. Can't wait to see what young master Cronenberg does next. Best moment: so many to choose from, but I'm going to say... anytime the camera pans around the deli.

Baytown Outlaws - Barry Battles - Boondock Saints, Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, Hell Ride... this is the picture that those all wanted (and failed) to be, so, at least, there's that. But that doesn't turn out to be quite as awesome as you might hope. It's like Battles and co-writer Griffin Hood wanted to make a vehicle for the Tremor brothers from Smokin Aces - which, okay, I'd go see - and the Oodie brothers here, played by Clayne Crawford, Travis Fimmel, and Daniel Cudmore, could be a lot of fun in small doses, but in the end they can't quite generate a feature's running time of audience good will and a structure that has them knocking down a series of ultimate badasses every fifteen minutes seriously undercuts the idea of an 'ultimate badass'. But let's not be entirely negative, huh? The cast are demonstrably charismatic (check out Fimmel in Vikings, and I already said Crawford's character was my favorite part of Rectify), the script by Battles & Hood has plenty of flavor and the direction is fluid and charged with energy. I'm confident that everybody involved is capable of making one of my favorite flicks of the next five or ten years, but it's not this one. Just glad it's out of their system now and they can move on. Best moment: the opening raid.

Bullet to the Head - Walter Hill - Checked this one out for Hill. Not sure what is says about your movie when Sylvester Stallone is consistently the best actor on screen, but you could go ahead and say it about this one. Is Stallone great? Not quite, but this is arguably his best role since Cop Land - but then this one is a big ol' softball pitched to his sweet spot. Or could you say that Sung Kang is terrible as the sidekick here? Absolutely, the worst. But is that because he has no presence or because his character has no purpose outside of using a smart phone every once in a while (where we get perhaps the most awful and flat-out funny delivery of expositional dialogue in the history of film - or the decade anyway). Is this worthy of Hill's legacy? At least as worthy as The Wolf of Wall Street will be to Martin Scorsese's. There's a terrific energy to the fight sequences and the picture barely pauses to listen to your objections. The subtitle could've been It Came From the Eighties... and I'd be fine with that. Best moment: the bath house brawl - it's no Eastern Promises, but then what is?

Elysium - Neill Blomkamp - Max is an ex-con, factory worker living in a slum called Earth, trying to stay straight and keep in line  so as to avoid beat-downs from robo-cops and probation violations from his animatronic PO. When he suffers a terrible accident on the job, exposing him to a lethal dose of radiation, and learns that he has only a few days to live, he embraces his inner outlaw in a crazy bid to be healed. His plan is to go to heaven and hijack some magic healthcare which everybody up there enjoys. See on Elysium (a space station where the fabulously wealthy can live a So-Cal lifestyle without being bothered by the great unwashed), every mansion has a voodoo tanning bed that sweeps cancer out of your body and whitens your teeth while you wait. Only problem is, those rich folks don't care to share and their security chief contracts some batshit mercenaries to keep the lawns pristine in the extra-terrestrial suburbs. Perhaps you've heard that it's not subtle. It's not. It makes the allegory of Killing Them Softly seem damn near subliminal, but this has some amazing blood-letting and first-rate world-building that make any nits you care to pick entirely inconsequential. Sharlto Copley, as the heavy, is absolutely terrifying killing people with psychotic glee and incomprehensible dialogue (I think Jodie Foster stole his enunciation faculties - she sounds like she's chewing on them every time she speaks), and the action sequences are tight, visceral executions showcasing practical futuristic-weapons tech and their horrifying results. The details of this vision of the future are beautifully realized and completely absorbing. It's the quicker, thicker picker upper of all the sci-fi I watched this month. Best moment: the surgery.

Holy Rollers - Kevin Asch - Based on a true story about an orthodox kid in New York who gets half-willingly tricked into becoming an international drug smuggler, this is a crime story that's not a thriller nor a searing character exploration, but not a bad little drama either. The best thing about the flick are the glimpses inside the urban Jewish Orthodox community in the late 20th century. It's a slice of New York city life that is pretty intriguing (especially) the more it's allowed to rub up against the modern world and I could have enjoyed spending more time hanging out with Sam and Leon and Yosef as they grow up and make their own lives out of the skills they've been taught and the materials they have on hand. Not an enthusiastic recommendation, but worth your time if the subject matter interests you. Best moment: Josef introduces the boys to the boss.

J.S.A.: Joint Security Area - Chan-wook Park - The soldiers on both sides that guard the no-man's-land between North and South Korea live in a state of perpetual tension and alertness eyeing each other with suspicion and not a little bit of curiosity. An investigator looking into an incident that claimed the lives of several soldiers has to rule whether there has been abduction and rescue or cold-blooded murder. She interviews the surviving soldiers and they all lie to her while the truth is revealed in flashbacks. There's a lot of humanity in this early effort from Chan-wook and none of the technical and stylish flash he's recognized for now - I was thrown off balance by my own expectations and missed out on appreciating some great little moments. It took sitting through the first half of the relatively quiet (and kinda cheap-looking) film to settle down and appreciate it for what it was. Kang-ho Song is, as always, the best thing on screen in this one. Best moment: a soldier from the South (Byung-hun Lee) gets lost in a minefield and discovered by Kang-ho.
Long Riders - Walter Hill - Beyond the gimmick of so many historical siblings being portrayed by actual brothers (David, Keith & Robert Carradine play the Youngers, Stacey & James Keach play the James boys, Randy & Dennis Quaid are the Millers and Christopher & Nicholas Guest the Fords) I'll remember this flick for demonstrating to me how damn good David Carradine could be. I'm a late-blooming Carradine appreciator (and that goes for Keith too - Deadwood - another Walter Hill project - got the ball rolling there, Kill Bill Vol. 2 for big bro). Maybe because they were such goofy-looking motherfuckers or that by the time I knew the name it was for schlocky TV and movies in the nineties. Whatever the reason, I'm climbing out of the rut of first impressions and I've never been more electrified by David as in this here picture. And not for the tough-guy bits - facing off against Frank & Jesse James or absorbing multiple bullets in Minnesota - in which he's great, either, but rather for the layers to his relationship with Pamela Reed's Belle. "Because you're a whore" never sounded so sweet, and conflicted. I'd have enjoyed an entire film around their bitter-tinged not-quite romance. In fact, I couldn't choose between their scenes for a single best and had to instead make the- Best moment: the Northfield shootout is fantastic.

Oblivion - Joseph Kosinski - My kids have seen The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Last Man on Earth, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, The Wrath of Kahn and a few more age-appropriate big-impression science fiction films and are able to catch and appreciate a few nods to their influence in stuff like this one, Len Wiseman's Total Recall, Pacific Rim or say Star Trek: Into Darkness, but what, I wonder, will their first exposure to something tough and adult like 2001 or Blade Runner be like? Will they feel that they've already seen the whole movie in chunks lifted straight out of the source material? Will it have any impact still, or will it just be a watered-down re-assemblage of sci-fi's greatest hits? Guess what? I don't care. If it works, it works and I trust that people get out of art what they bring to the experience (often unaware). There's a reason stories get told, re-told and then told all over again endlessly: they resonate. And this one, as familiar (or recycled) as it is, will be some kids' biggest influence. Great. It's certainly a striking-looking flick, and the themes that roll out give just enough mental bubble-gum to build stronger chewing muscles for more challenging fare later. Myself, it didn't hit me hard, but I didn't find it boring either. I watched it with my kids (and probably wouldn't have included it on this roundup except that, in retrospect, August wasn't a big crime flick month for some reason) and I loved seeing the nine year old especially be thrilled by the sensation of 'getting it' at the end. I think it might be a gateway drug to challenging themes and hey, just challenging story structures. Best moment: crashing in the red zone.

Trance - Danny Boyle - This big-screen remake of a 2001 made for television movie (written and directed by Joe Ahearne), is something of a curiosity for somebody like Boyle to take on. What drew him to the material, what did he think he'd bring out of it better than they did the first time around? Regardless the reason, here's what we get: a stylish, twisty heist thriller that's visually fantastic populated by characters that are completely hollow. And that's not a terrible thing. It's fun. It feels like somebody turned Boyle's camera loose on one of those oversized, super-padded indoor playgrounds and he's enjoying the freedom to send it hurling at top speed over, under, around and through any object without any true sense of danger ever being reached. You can't really talk about the plot of this one without spoiling a few dozen big movies you may or may not have seen, but, trusting that, reading this blog, you have seen a genre film or two, I feel free to say: in a con movie - you're always getting conned, in a double-cross flick - guess what, numbers climb higher than two, and in a movie dealing with memory loss, hypnotism or untrustworthy narrators - you should never be surprised. Ever. Hell, I'll go further, any movie-watcher since 1999 shouldn't be surprised by any twist in this film (man, 1999 gave us a bunch of influential perception-fuckery flicks... The Matrix, Existenz, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club...), so don't judge the film on its success or failure to surprise you, but rather on its effectiveness in carrying you through to the finale. And there is a really terrific finale in this one - the fact that you won't be invested in any of the characters completely aside. Best moment: the uh finale - with fire.

Weeds Season 8 - Jenji Kohan - Finished. Over. Done. If I weren't a completest I probably wouldn't have finished this show, but frankly it was really bothering me, knowing I'd come so close to the end, but hadn't seen it through. In the history of television, is there a program that has risen and fallen so dramatically and erratically and serially in quality as Weeds? On the one hand, I admire Kohan and company for the big risks they took - especially after season 3 when they moved the show out of the suburbs and into the world, the ability to cut characters out if they got in the way, and the wildly escalating body-count and commitment to keeping Nancy in the running for the title 'worst parent in the history of the medium,' but man, was it exhausting (rather than exhilarating) to go through. The final chapter gives Nancy a half-assed attempt at redemption, but she and the show give up quickly and that's, I think, the trademark failure of the series (and perhaps Kohan's - I'm going thru Orange is the New Black right now and getting the sense it's going to happen again) - it moves on so quickly that consequences never really set it. I'm glad that wild, dark shit can and does happen in this universe, but we move on sooooo quickly or it's played off for a laugh and never matters later so often that it feels as false as a safe-safe boring-ass sitcom (example - in season eight one of the long-term straight male characters is forced to suck a dick, something that should be pretty upsetting for the character we've spent the last eight years observing, but is only played off for a quick laugh and has no bearing - outside of the immediate situation - on the character's life). So, hey, Nancy and co.? It was a wild ride, we had some times, but I'm glad it's over. Best moment: Doug gets stabbed.

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