Monday, September 30, 2019

Miike, Murakami, Hitchcock

On the latest episode of the Do Some Damage podcast I'm excited for First Love the latest from prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike. If you can't get out to theaters for his bloody, romantic one-crazy-night comedy, I'm pleased to inform you that there's a lot of good stuff of his available on streaming platforms.

If you're not yet familiar with Miike he's made around a hundred features so something's bound to your thing especially if you like yakuza pictures, samurai flicks or just weird fucking gross-ass horror spectacles. Some of my favorites include 13 Samurai, Gozu, Dead or Alive, Blade of the Immortal and Ichi the Killer. But you can also see a western (eastern?) of his, Sukiyaki Western Django (on Prime and Tubi), or the musical Happiness of the Katakuris (on Prime) if that's more your thing.

My favorite Miike movie is probably his best known: 1999's Audition. It's a slow burn of a creep-fest that teased out its simple premise to some disgusting-ass epic proportions with a remarkable degree of... 'restraint' doesn't seem like the appropriate term, but if you're familiar with his gonzo-energetic capabilities you might agree that it's almost that.

It's so sick and twisted and just fucking funny too it reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock at his hitch-cockiest.

While it's a Miike-favorite, it's also an adaptation of a novel by RyĆ» Murakami. Murakami's work has been adapted into several films and television shows mostly in Japan and sometimes by his own directorial effort, but English-subtitled versions are not easily available for most of these. In fact 1992's Tokyo Decadence is the only other one I'd seen until a few weeks ago when I finally caught up with Nicolas Pesce's Piercing.

Piercing stars Christopher Abbott as a young father who cooks up a scheme with the help of his wife (Laia Costa) to murder a call girl in order to keep loved ones safe from what is apparently an overwhelming urge of his. Mia Wasikowska plays the intended victim and the film plays out mostly in the hotel room where the event is supposed to take place.

Piercing is a fucking sick movie played very effectively for laughs. My favorite guffaw-moments came during the montage of Abbott rehearsing the murder, dismemberment and disposal of evidence. The whole sequence is just him pantomiming to wonderful editing and sound design that ought to illicit gasps and giggles in more or less equal proportions.

Of course nothing goes as planned and fans of Audition will find a lot of similarities and could probably guess they came from the same mind. Pesce's film is so stylishly crafted I'm going to have catch up with The Eyes of My Mother soon. Abbott's impressed me of late especially with his turns in Sweet Virginia and It Comes at Night and Wasikowska turns up in so many recent favorites I'm beginning to lose track. I heartily recommend checking her out in David Cronenberg's pitch-black comedy Maps to the Stars (now on Netflix).

You can also catch her in Park Chan-wook's only English language film to date, Stoker, which is kind of a gothic play on Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.

Chris Holm ducked out of the latest episode, but William Boyle stepped in to talk music and Holly West, as always, takes on the TVs.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Standards Have Fallen

Gah! We've arrived at peak nowness with Angel Has Fallen, the third film in the 'Has Fallen' franchise starring Gerard Butler (whom I just can't bring myself to give up on) as secret service agent to Morgan Freeman's President ever under siege doing just fine in its theatrical run. I saw the first one and thought it was hilariously bad with a handful of effectively vicious moments tilting it out of the absolute waste of time category (and of course the scene of Melissa Leo 'pray-chanting' the pledge of allegiance before a presumed execution deserves to have a long life in the "high-camp" halls of fame). Two sequels though? The latest directed by... Ric Roman Waugh?


 On the latest episode of Do Some Damage podcast I recommend that if you must check out a Ric Roman Waugh movie you go with Shot Caller instead. I talk about movies on the podcast while TV is strictly the purview of Holly West, (who goes into Carnival Row with host Steve Weddle this time) so I really used Angel Has Fallen to connect to Ric to recommend Shot Caller rather than reveal my true motivation for inviting you to check it out - Holt McCallany's fine work on Mindhunter.

I think McCallany is the secret weapon of that show. He's the un-flashy bedrock, sturdy as hell, but flexible enough to launch some of the bigger performances to stratospheric heights. He shows up and does really good work. And he has been for years. Before Mindhunter David Fincher cast him in every(?) movie he made, though in small, background roles. He got a little bit of room to be seen in Michael Mann's Blackhat, but honestly when most of your screen time is with Viola Davis you're not going to be the memorable part.

If you're wondering what else Holt can do, lemme suggest you look at his most(?) showy role - that of The Beast, an incarcerated Aryan gang leader in Shot Caller. His entire wardrobe is a pair of white boxer shorts and some nasty tattoos, but he grew some equally nasty facial hair and shaved his head for maximum menace. Everybody in the movie is pretty nasty (Jon Bernthal is his usual high-bro-intensity and Jeffrey Donovan is pretty great with the little he's given to do), but this time around it's McCallany whose performance is the most eye-catching (gouging?).

If you've seen Roman Waugh's Felon (with Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer) you've already seen him pull out the list of things he knows about prison life (as well as some deliriously pulpy inventions), but Shot Caller's quite a bit better. And it's on Prime now.

Of course McCallany isn't the star of the movie, that's Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (he who wanks with his left hand on Game of Thrones) and if I had the episode to do over I would have got to Shot Caller through him. Dude's building up a very respectable body of crime films including this one, Headhunters, Nightwatch and Small Crimes. And his latest honor is starring in the new Brian De Palma thriller, Domino. That should've been my way in.

Domino. Finally got around to seeing it and so glad I did. Here's the thing if it's first and foremost a 'thriller' than it is a disappointment. We don't really care about the relationships, the suspense and tension never amount to much, the atmosphere is intermittently arresting, but the air is continually let out of it by less successful scenes.

But if it's first and foremost a De Palma film it's got some real pleasures to offer. Two standout De Palma-esque sequences of cinematic playfulness as well as the presence of familiar De Palma elements (a spiral staircase! a big window! a train station! dual-focus shots! Hitchcockian nods!) make it well worth the time of De Palma fans. Watching the old masters muck around with the new toys and tech is sometimes excruciating and at times exhilarating.

I can picture what Domino might have been with the budgets and crews that he worked with at the height of his commercial viability and it's a considerably more satisfying picture - mostly in the atmospheric department - the warm hues of film quality, a less place-holdery original score, plenty of extras. To me, the fact that we didn't get the best version of this movie possible is not as big a bummer as the fact that we got (and might get more of) this type of De Palma film again at all is an unqualified win-column check.

Also on the new episode I mention A Simple Favor starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively as a mismatched pair of mothers whose children become friends at school. Kendrick is a widow and vlogger who focuses on the challenges of being a single mother. She's unassuming and demur and painfully lonely and when Lively's character shows the slightest interest in friendship she latches on so hard that she sticks it out when it becomes apparent that she's being taken advantage of.

Until Blake is made permanently un-Lively.

It's a surprisingly nasty slice of domestic suspense to come from director Paul Feig better known for his comedic pictures often pairing female leads (Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, The Heat and Spy) and the fun is wondering how dark a pitch we're in for. Were it David Fincher making Gone Girl I'd be braced for pretty noir shit, but Feig? Kendrick? Wheeeeeere's it going?

You may or may not enjoy finding out.

A Simple Favor is based on a novel by Darcey Bell, but screenwriter Jessica Sharzer wrote another similarly out of my typical preferred fare flick that I enjoyed; Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's Nerve with Emma Roberts and Dave Franco (based on the novel by Jeanne Ryan). It's set up like a teen romantic adventure based around silly-seeming 21st century technological social networking, but it's a pretty effective, slippery escalation into scary-ass crime shit. I dunno, give it a shot.

But back to Feig, 'cause I had an idea the other day that I can not shake and it is this...
I want Paul Feig to make a gender-flipped remake of John Badham's Stakeout. Boom.

Are you with me? I mean, you love Stakeout as much as I do, right? It's one of those crime comedies from the 80s that made the decade the golden age of the genre as far as I'm concerned. I watched it again the other day and enjoyed it like I always do, but it's not the 80s anymore (and I'm not a teenager anymore) and yeah, some of it remains firmly in another time and social sensibility.

It's juuuuust a tad chauvinistic in its sensibilities (benignly so?) and man, I think there could be a lot of fun had by the right team to bring it full circle. I want this more than I should. 

Got around to watching it again because I fell down a Madeleine Stowe themed rabbit hole that included first watches of Ciro Duran's Tropical Snow and John Bailey's China Moon. China Moon wasn't great, but it's amazing what a couple decades' remove will do to the rewatchability of something mediocre. I mean, holy shit the cast hanging out in this otherwise tepid thriller: Ed Harris, Benicio Del Toro, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Charles Dance (shit! this is the crime movies populated by the cast of Game of Thrones blog post isn't it? I mean, that's two Lannisters mentioned and I forgot to say that Carice Van Houten was in Domino too). Anyway, it ain't great, but it ain't nothin. Very forgivable C movie for the pleasure of seeing these folks in their prime.

Anyway, I went down the Stowe hole after viewing Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans in preparation for that brannew Blake Howard podcast The Last (12 Minutes) of the Mohicans which will feature the Mann again in the final episode of this mini-project. Fuck, I'm so excited to be part of this project. I love, love, love the movie and the company.

First couple episodes are up now and if you enjoyed One Heat Minute, it looks like a bunch of the same crew have come back for this one and will... probably(?) be coming in to lend a hand on the Howard produced, Travis Woods-hosted Increment Vice which will tackle Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice a minute at a time (I think).

And speaking of Woods, he's back on his bullshit with this great bit on Elaine May's Mikey & Nicky for the May-in-September themed issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room. Seriously though, why didn't they do Elaine May's issue in May? I mean, a gender-flipped Stakeout project for Paul Feig, and a May May issue, do I have to think of everything?

Y'know something I wouldn't have thought of? Remaking The Disappearance of Alice Creed in German. I mean, fuckin Gemma Arterton and Eddie Marsan were two-thirds of the cast of the original, how do you think you're going to improve it? Well Thomas Sieben's Kidnapping Stella is said project and I can definitively say it was not an improvement. In fact it stuck so closely to J. Blakeson's original script it was nearly a shot-for-shot restaging, save a couple of details that favored the original. Oh well, glad to know shitty remakes go to other countries to. Kidnapping Stella is available in the U.S. as a Netflix original, but I'd highly recommend tracking down The Disappearance of Alice Creed instead.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

I Started a Joke

About the last thing I'm excited for now is first-rate talent being tied up in never-ending projects that suck all the oxygen out of the industry because they make (and cost) so much money. When Joker was rumored to be a Martin Scorsese project I moaned - how many movies does he have left in him? Do I really want him to be spending his (our) precious (little) time on a Batman movie? But I'm curious about Todd Phillips' project with Joaquin Phoenix in the role. Mostly because I think Phoenix is one of the best actors of his generation and he's doing a crime movie which you may know I'm partial to. Also because I read Phillips' pitch to DC which went something like this - try going the other way with these comic book movies (mostly) - no green screens.

And then the trailers landed and who-ee the takes were hot!

And then the film debuted at a festival and the hub-ub was (at least briefly) deafening and I saw my interest levels rise a little more. I may love and I may hate Joker when I do eventually see it, but I've got to say it is refreshing for the polarizing effect of a comic book movie to have just about nothing to do with comic book fidelity and I'm tantalized a lot more by the prospect of having a big reaction (good or bad) to it than the shrug most comic book movies elicit from me.

I get that this might not be your preferred tone or flavor for the material and I have no problem with your disinterest or frustration if that's the case. The good news for everybody who's a fan of Batman is that it's such a fuckin' cultural juggernaut with so many differently flavored takes across so many mediums reaching back decades and showing no sign of slowing down that there is and will be plenty of material of the flavor that you do prefer available.

But I've seen some takes that bother me. Takes that put forth an argument I find disturbing. Namely that making an effort to humanize this character is not only not worth it, but potentially dangerous and artistically irresponsible.

I totally get that explaining too much about a monster or villain can ruin or seriously dilute their ability to be an effective presence in a story. Your 'thriller' may thrill less. What should be a romp becomes a depressing slog. I mean holy shit, what I wouldn't give to have the Darth Vader of my youth back and I think Hannibal Rising was probably a bad idea. But as a writer, I am very here for the challenge of humanizing horrible characters because when we write off real people who do horrible things as 'monsters' or 'unhuman' we do a disservice to ourselves.

They are human and what they do is monstrous.

How can we reconcile that? How can we have anything in common with a monster? If we don't have anything in common with monsters then we don't have to be concerned about our own souls.

Every time I hear a story of an amazing human achievement or heroism or compassion it thrills me because I have something in common (humanity) with the hero. Likewise, every true story of an awful crime that I hear hits me hard because I know that I have something in common with the perpetrator.

When I hear those awful stories they bother me and I am tempted to shrug their behavior off as something un-human. That would be comforting. But inhumanity in action or attitude is exceedingly common in people. It's extremely common in me.

I'm always looking for an excuse to dehumanize victims of crime/poverty/injustice/disease/natural disaster because it's overwhelming to have to consider all the suffering that happens in the world, but when I discount the suffering of real human beings just to achieve some minor comfort, some status, or some little goal then I have engaged in intellectual inhumanity and the difference between thinking of people as less than human and treating them that way means crossing an awfully thin line.

The other side of that line is where monsters live and operate.

I love a thriller and I don't need to know how every monster got to be that way, but when I write I'm always looking for the answer (even if it's not on the page) because I don't want to become one. I may or may not do a good job of it, but it's always part of the work for me.

I've got no problem if you see a trailer for a movie and can tell right off that it's not to your liking, and I've got no problem if you see an actual movie and think that it sucked, but the idea of telling an artist that they shouldn't try to humanize a character - not because it's going to be a bad choice for a particular project, but because any character who would do that kind of thing shouldn't be humanized - it's a pretty wrong-headed take.

If it's something that people do then it is human. "Humanizing" the criminal doesn't lessen the horror of the crime because it's relatable. The relatability of the terrible act is where the horror truly lies.

Thankfully Joker isn't the only polarizing picture this year. Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time Hollywood also provoked some pretty juicy stuff across the spectrum (which I've generally found to be more entertaining than the movie itself), but one particular take really, really, really, like utterly baffled and fucking infuriated me: "I'm sick and tired of Tarantino trying to redeem awful characters."

To which I immediately reply - motherfucker, then who should he try to redeem?

Redemption is the shit.

The good and necessary shit.

Otherwise we're all fucked. All. Everybody. Me first, but you too.

When I was a kid I thought I was a pretty good guy (and I was comparatively), but the older I got the more I realized that my actions and thoughts and instincts run more or less completely perpendicular to my ideals. I fail constantly to be who I think I should be, nevermind thinking correctly who I should be. I need to be redeemed annually, weekly and daily, probably hourly. I make too many mistakes. If there's no improving, no hope for course correction or overpowering grace in the world then a swift and merciful death is the best hope for everybody.

So please show me the redemption of awful characters. The more awful the character, the greater the challenge to redeem. And just like humanizing terrifying characters ought to make them more terrifying, redeeming truly awful characters ought to be a comfort and encouragement to people who know how bad they are. Like me.

Which isn't to say it's always (or often, or regularly) artistically successful. Fuuuuuuuuck no. If the complaint is that a trope or plot point in a character's humanizing or redemption is kinda worn out or poorly utilized, that's absolutely legit. I do hate it when it's done badly, cheaply, falsely. And please forgive me personally for the times that I fail to humanize or redeem characters in a satisfying way - you have my blessing not to read my stuff. There are people who do it better than I can and you are encouraged to go read them.

Joker may do it badly (jury's out - I haven't seen it yet). Tarantino may do it badly (keep having the conversations, everybody). But I reject the idea that it shouldn't be attempted.