Monthly Archives: February 2015

Sinking in to the ‘Ruin’

Why, yes, that is Jan Brady firing an automatic weapon. Why do you ask?

Why, yes, that is Jan Brady firing an automatic weapon. Why do you ask?

How much of your life rides on the outcome of one event?

Meet Dwight Evans. He’s a vagrant, camping in his car, eating from the trash, occasionally breaking into homes to bathe or get something a little fresher to eat. He seems … distant, lost, a bit shaky, like maybe he’s in shock or just not quite altogether there.

Turns out that, years before we meet him, Dwight’s parents were murdered. The killer is someone the family knew and was jailed for the crime. Until Blue Ruin begins, and Dwight finds out that Wade Cleland is being released from prison.

It is the spark that light’s Dwight’s wick. He gathers his limited possessions and takes off for Virginia. He seeks a firearm, but has no luck. He’s there, watching, when Wade walks out of prison to meet his family. Dwight follows the group to a restaurant, hides in the bathroom and stabs Wade in the neck at the first opportunity.

From there, the violence just keeps coming. Wade’s family knows the attacker was Dwight, knows where his sister lives, even where she hides when Dwight warns her what may be coming. Dwight is forced to fight, ending up responsible for the death of one of Wade’s brothers and others before his journey ends.

Dwight, played by Macon Blair, is a damaged, lost man who struggles to connect with the world after the murders of his parents.

Dwight, played by Macon Blair, is a damaged, lost man who struggles to connect with the world after the murders of his parents.

That is what Blue Ruin is about: The cycle of violence. Dwight clearly is mild-mannered, tender and generally a nice guy. But one horrific event – the death of his parents – brought his life to a grinding halt. And the only thing that could help Dwight gain forward momentum is the release of Wade, the opportunity to avenge his parents. Dwight can go no further, won’t pass Go, won’t collect $200 until that is taken care of.

The deeper into the shit Dwight wades, the more he recognizes how it must end. He has to kill all of Wade’s family, his own life be damned. The few people who are involved in Dwight’s life – his sister, his nieces, a high school chum – their lives will all be forfeit if Dwight fails.

And so Dwight trudges on toward the inevitable. At any point where he considers backing off, he is spurred further by confirmation of his assessment, that his loved ones are in danger. Even toward the end, Dwight believes, for a brief moment, that he can back off, walk no further down this bloody path. But Wade’s family won’t allow his family safe passage, so Dwight does what he must.

Writer/director/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier crafts a Coen Brother’s-esque story of revenge. Saulnier is skilled, eschewing dialogue when possible, allowing Dwight’s – and everyone else’s – actions to speak for themselves. Words don’t mean much here, with the consequences of such actions often being fatal. It makes for a quieter, more contemplative movie, and Saulnier encourages that openness, that space for the viewer to think about what they’re seeing. There are moments of brief humor, but the absurdity comes more from how Dwight continually finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into the muck the more he fights to get out of it, as well as how lucky he gets at every turn.

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Apparently, ‘Arrow’ writers don’t know much about history

You think you can play Diggle like a punk?

You think you can play Diggle like a punk?

“There’s never been an armed occupation in history that wasn’t overthrown in force.”
John Diggle, “Uprising,”
Arrow

In a recent episode of Arrow, during a conversation with the rest of the green-hooded (at that point believed-to-be-dead) hero’s gang, resident badass Diggle utters the phrase above. It’s a pretty cool phrase, uttered by a character who is a military veteran and knows a little something about armed combat.

The only problem is it’s untrue. And I knew it immediately. How would I know this and the writers of Arrow wouldn’t? I’m not sure, because I don’t think it would have been hard to google it. Hell, it was the subject of an Academy Award-winning film. Give up?

I can sum it up in three words: Mahatma frigging Gandhi.

Yeah, a little bald dude in a toga who spent his free time making yarn on a loom, walking all over India and kicking the British Empire’s privileged, heavily armed ass the whole way back to Europe, minus the ass kicking. Gandhi wasn’t the only one involved, of course, but he fronted the movement and became a worldwide sensation when the only thing resembling a global media outlet was BBC radio.

That’s a pretty big oversight on the Arrow crew’s part. I’m betting there are other examples out there of civil disobedience working, although maybe not on the scale of what Gandhi and his fellow Indians pulled off.

Someone needed to step away from the script and fact check. And they didn’t. Because here’s the thing: A character like Diggle would know full well that the line he uttered was complete bullshit and never have uttered it in the first place.

Don’t play Diggle like a punk. And don’t play Arrow viewers like punks, either.

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Language leads to war in ‘Embassytown’

I finished Embassytown a few weeks ago. It’s rare for me to wait this long to comment on something I’ve read or watched, but I really don’t know where to begin.

I keep thinking of the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men come across an elephant and start to feel it. One feels the tusks, another a leg, another the tail, and so on. The blind men start to argue about what it is they might be feeling, but they lack the ability to see the complete picture, only able to quibble over what seem like unmatched parts.

With Embassytown, the complete picture is so incredibly large. It doesn’t feel like that from the start, as our first-person narrator, Avice Benner Cho, gives us the lay of the land. Embassytown is a small, human village amid the Ariekei on a distant planet at the edge of the known universe. The Ariekei have two mouths, speaking two words at the same time. This can be mimicked by machine, but a third element comes into play: the soul. The sounds emitting from the machine mean nothing without living, breathing beings speaking the words. Since humans can’t really say two words at the same time, special twins, Ambassadors, are bred and raised to function as one to be able to communicate with the Ariekei. It’s a little like trying to lift a warehouse with a simple lever, but it enables some communication between the two races. Cho is uniquely positioned in this little world. She is an Immer, someone who can help guide ships through vast regions of space due to special abilities most don’t have. She is also a living, breathing metaphor, “the girl who sat in the dark and ate what was given to her,” for the Ariekei. The Ariekei are incapable of lying; therefore, they construct metaphors from actual humans. Cho is in with the humans because she is both an Immer and one of the rare humans to ever leave the planet and come back, and she’s damn near a rock star with the Ariekei, who actually develop favorite metaphors much like humans pick a baseball team to root for.

Quite a bit of weirdness, eh? And that’s just the damn tusk of Embassytown. I haven’t mentioned the first Ambassadors who aren’t twins, how their language becomes aural crack for the Ariekei, how all of this leads to assassinations, massacres, war and global upheaval.

I was blown away by Mieville’s The City & The City, which, oddly enough, I found while looking for a copy of Embassytown. As rich as The City & The City is, Embassytown is just that much more vast and intricate, a science fiction tale that is unique in its vision. I haven’t done it justice here. But as the guy who only feels like he got a good luck at the tusk, this is the best description as I can give you of this particular elephant.

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‘Raid 2’ ranks with greatest sequels of all times

"The Raid 2" will make you re-think riding on public transportation.

“The Raid 2” doubles as an informative documentary about the dangers of public transportation.

There’s a scene in Matrix Revolutions where Morpheus, Trinity and Seraph go to meet with the Merovingian in an attempt to free Neo. They go up an elevator in the club, the door opens and all hell breaks loose … in a scene that looks and plays a lot like the scene from the original Matrix where Neo and Trinity go in an attempt to free Morpheus, enter the lobby of an office building and all hell breaks loose. It was bizarrely redundant, maybe an attempt by the Wachowskis to comment on the repetitive nature of life, that when you continue the same violent patterns, you get the same results. If so, it was unnecessary, particularly in a film trilogy so laden with symbolism and depth of story-telling that it could have used a little more lightness, if anything.

To me, that’s what The Raid felt like: A well-made action film packed with bizarrely redundant fight scenes. After the initial assault on a drug lord’s bunker-like apartment building goes haywire, the SWAT team and none of the dealers seem to have guns or ammo. So on the one hand, you end up with this bad-ass trudge up story after story as our hero cop, Rama, whips one hardcore gang fighter after another, hoping to finish the job and return safely to his family. On the other hand, you have this incredibly redundant set of hand-to-hand fight scenes limited by the setting. It’s not that some battles don’t stand out, but by-and-large it just seems to be a lot of the same moves over and over, something more akin to video games than film. It doesn’t hurt the movie much, mostly because the fight scenes are so well choreographed and because Raid: Redemption moves quickly, not giving the viewer much time to dwell on it. But after watching it once, I felt no compulsion to see it again.

Flash forward to my viewing of The Raid 2.

Oh. My. God.

The scene linked above is amazing. It’s key to the plot, as Rama is now undercover, trying to insinuate himself into the inner circle of Uco, the only child of a gang chief. He has to keep Uco alive in prison, which is hard to do because Uco’s pretty high-profile and very much an asshat. And Rama has to keep himself alive, as he’s already dealing with a target on his own back. The fight itself is amazing, the choreography, the mud and the fact that the bulk of the scene is long, uncut, single-shot action. Director Gareth Evans and cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono show off in the least showy way possible, making the story and action the focus, not drawing attention to the fancy stuff they can do with a camera even as they do it.

And that scene may be the third of fourth best action/fight scene in the film. Let that sink in.

Edwards, who also wrote the script, is freed here. It’s pretty obvious that the success of Raid: Redemption gave the filmmaker and muse/fight choreographer Iko Uwais, who plays Rama, the cheddar to get crazier on the second one. The car chase fight is worth the price of admission, something you can do with the kind of money and time Edwards and Co. likely didn’t have with the original. It’s nice to see a director who gets an opportunity and doesn’t just add more violence, more gunfights and more explosions, but better violence, better gunfights and better explosions.

The writer-director also doesn’t just limit improvements to the look and action of the film. The cast is broad and the story is more intricate than its predecessor, mixing clean and dirty cops, Idonesian and Japanese gangsters. All of this revolves around the simplicity that guided the first film. Rama is a man who worships God, loves his family and believes fiercely in justice. That is all that drives him in the first film, and all that drives him in the second. He has no politics, no desires, is incorruptible. From that simplicity springs a story that is part The Godfather, part The Departed, and quite possibly results in a film than is better than either.

I know, that last part sounds like heresy. But The Raid 2 is that good, up there with the Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather 2 and Aliens as a sequel that (arguably) surpasses its original. I think, had this been an English-language film made by an American studio, this is the kind of film that could have been in the conversation during awards season.

It will be interesting to see where Edwards and Uwais go next, if they maybe take it to a foreign locale so they can go with an English-speaking cast. My guess is no, since Tony Jaa has been rumored to make an appearance in the third go-round. On the one hand, that will limit its American exposure, which I find disappointing. On the other hand, I don’t mind being one of the few in this particular cult.

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4 reasons to watch ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

It's not easy saving the world from alien invasion, even if you have an infinite number of attempts to do it.

It’s not easy saving the world from alien invasion, even if you have an infinite number of attempts to do it.

1. Tom Cruise. Cruise is easy to dislike offscreen, largely because of the creepy Scientology stuff and the fact that his ex-wives tend to grab the kids and flee at some point. On screen, Cruise is a modern-day John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart, in that the character he usually plays, no matter the movie, is pretty much himself. That’s why his performance feels so much fresher in Edge of Tomorrow. Yes, Cruise starts out as the glib PR guy who is more than willing to promote war but wants nothing to do with the actual fighting, what you’d normally expect from a Tommy performance. But it’s not standard wink-and-a-smile, devil-may-care Cruise. There’s a desperation there, a desire to hide his cowardice, that comes to the forefront after his forced march from backstage to the front line. I’m used to loud, bold Cruise, whether that is Maverick and Cole Trickle from his big mainstream films or Frank Mackie and Ron Kovic in the more prestigious pics. This more subtle Cruise is one I’m not sure I’ve seen before, definitely not for a full movie.

2. Doug Liman. When Liman gets mentioned, it’s usually for being overly picky and going over-budget. And while for some reason those same traits make James Cameron a god, Liman’s reputation has taken a hit. But Liman has a unique ability: Creating interesting relationships amid chaos. Whether that’s the exasperated Claire and the skeevy drug dealer Todd in the one-crazy-night atmosphere in Go, amnesia-burdened Jason Bourne and the in-over-her-head Marie in the super-soldier tale of The Bourne Identity, the unhappily married spies of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, etc., Liman finds the way to create relationships that up the stakes when the action kicks in. Here, our heroine Rita and our anti-hero Cage must find a way to trust each other, to be able to rely on each other as they make repeated attempts to find and defeat the hive mind that leads the aliens. What Liman resists is pushing that trust and respect into an awkward and unnecessary love story, instead creating a tale of comrades-in-arms who figure out a way to beat the odds and do what needs to be done. More Liman, please, whatever tale he wants to tell.

When in doubt, fire every weapon you have.

When in doubt, fire every weapon you have.

3. The special effects. The beach landing is great, soldiers dropping from the sky, explosions in the air and on the ground, equipment burning and crashing. Too often with CGI, it seems easy to get taken out of the moment by the blatant falseness of what’s being shown. Somehow – possibly by largely being less effects-focused and more story-focused, leading to less CGI except for key scenes – Edge of Tomorrow avoids that.

4. Emily Blunt. Last and certainly not least. I find myself loving Blunt more and more each time I see her. The Adjustment Bureau, Looper, The Devil Wears Prada, Edge of Tomorrow. Blunt is an actor who elevates the material, regardless of what said material may be. Here, she plays the dominant personality in a relationship with Tom freakin’ Cruise, which can’t be the easiest thing to pull off. Blunt doesn’t even break a sweat … well, except when she’s chopping up aliens with her enormous, bad-ass sword.

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What’s so tough about movie No. 2?

Quicksilver was awesome, briefly ... all too briefly.

Quicksilver was awesome, briefly – all too briefly – in “Days of Future Past.”

Unwieldy. Slow. And worst of all, boring.

I was really looking forward to Days of Future Past. I thought the X-Men relaunch was terrific, the mix of actors, going back to the 1960s. It was note perfect, a way to keep the familiar characters of the previous three X-Men films while charting a new course for the re-launch.

I felt the same way about The Incredible Spider-Man. The movie wasn’t quite as awesome as the X-Men relaunch, but the Andrew Garfield-Emma Stone chemistry was terrific, and the film really set itself apart from the disappointing/overrated Sam Raimi trilogy.

Then I watched the second movie in each of these series. This was the question in my mind the entire time I viewed both: What the hell happened?

With The Incredible Spider-Man 2, some of it was greed. They tried to jam too much in, mostly hoping to set up a Sinister Six spin-off. Apparently movie execs have short memories, forgetting that too many villains didn’t work in Spider-Man 3 and contributed to the need to reboot the franchise in the first place. Plus, the whole Peter probing into his parents past thing dragged … actually, I’m not even sure “dragged” is harsh enough to describe how slow and dull that slog was. A great ending tied it all together, but it wasn’t enough to save the film.

Watching X-Men: Days of Future Past last night, all I could wonder was “why”? Why is there a need to tie the new franchise to the old? To me, that was the brilliance of the re-boot. If the franchise just stayed in the 1960s and 1970s, that would have been a lot of fun. But I’m not sure why anyone behind the film thought that everything had to be tied together from the two different eras. We were introduced to a number of characters – Bishop and Blink, to name two – who we didn’t get to know at all, just flat, cardboard mutant soldiers to feed to the Sentinels. Then a great character is introduced – Quicksilver – who subsequently disappears for the latter two-thirds of the movie. We get Kitty Pride spending the entire movie with her hands on either side of Wolverine’s temple, plus Iceman, Professor X and Magneto standing there watching her do it. Plus, the interplay of Charles, Erik and Raven – which was the centering relationship in the first film – is portrayed as fractured but in reality is nearly non-existent in the sequel. Days of Future Past somehow managed to accomplish the feat of doing way too much while not accomplishing nearly enough.

This isn’t just to pick on these two movies. The Matrix, The Hangover, Dumb and Dumber, Jaws … the list of overwhelming follow-ups is overwhelming. It’s not that it can’t be done – Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight and Halloween II, to name a few – but that second film is the true creative test, and too many flunk. Can you extend this story? Is there enough there to merit moving ahead? How can you challenge familiar characters in new ways? Maybe I’m naive to think any of this matters when compared to the profit motive of the companies financing the films, but it should matter. A good story doesn’t just make for a quality film, it also sells. A bad story sells some, but it damages the opportunities down the road.

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The bizarre cinematic jumble that is ‘Full Metal Yakuza’

The experience of watching Takashi Miike’s Full Metal Yakuza was a bit surreal. For the bulk of the 1997 film, I was reminded of a couple of 1980s geek classics – The Incredible Hulk television show and Robocop – mixed with the swordplay and spewing blood of Kill Bill.

The Incredible Hulk was the most direct connection. A man transformed by science into something other, forced to live apart. The musical theme for our hero Nagane from Full Metal Yakuza is oddly similar to that of Bruce Banner linked at the top of the post. And for a film made in 1997, the special effects were pure Reagan-era. Those effects added humor and cheesiness that helped undercut some of the violence.

While Hagane is a Japanese gang member, yakuza, much like Robocop, he is seeking justice. He and his mentor are set up and slaughtered, only to be recombined – with some robotic parts – to form our titular man of metal. Hagane wants to know who sold them out, and it is willing to cut his way through every gangster in Japan if necessary to find the answer. Unlike Robocop, however, there’s really not a deeper message that holds the action together.

It's refreshing to run into a mad scientist who knows he's absolutely nuts.

It’s refreshing to run into a mad scientist who knows he’s absolutely nuts.

Neither of those similarities to ’80s screen gems is enough to make Full Metal Yakuza a great movie, but for the bulk of the flick, it’s fun to watch. Until right at the end, when all of the fun ends.

A former lover of Hagane’s mentor comes across him and discovers that he is this mix of spare parts. It drives her mad, to the point where she makes a foolish assassination attempt on the head yakuza. She is captured and held prisoner to lure Hagane to a trap set by the yakuza.

If it stopped with that, it would be fine. But the young woman is held in the middle of an open warehouse, wearing some “sexy” outfit, chained to a mattress, legs spread wide. Then she is viciously gang raped – again in an attempt to goad Hagane – and bites off her own tongue amid the madness.

The humor was gone. The cheesiness, poof, disappeared. It was a much darker, much more exploitative moment than at any point in the movie. It was also completely unnecessary to show on-screen. I wrote a while back that while I Spit on Your Grave did a good job in its portrayal of a rape without making it feel lascivious or exploitative, I was still uncomfortable with the idea of people profiting of a rape flick. Here, there were no shades of gray. It was awful, and really beneath a filmmaker of Miike’s caliber. Disappointing.

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‘Maniac’ (Or when good Hobbits go bad … very, very bad)

It's OK for boys to play with dolls ... just not this particular boy.

It’s OK for boys to play with dolls … just not this particular boy.

I have to admit, I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed Maniac.

Don’t get me wrong, this film has its flaws. For such a short film, it drags a bit in the second act. Maniac is also shot largely in first person, meaning we mostly only see star Elijah Wood’s face in reflections, which causes some awkward moments with regards to camera work. It works, but there are times it works better than others.

That said, I think the choice to shoot first person was fairly daring. What we really see is the world according to Frank (Wood), a loner who lives in the basement of the family business, a company that restores antique mannequins. Frank also has some serious mommy issues, problems that lead him to kill and scalp (not necessarily in that order) women so he can put their hair on mannequins, who become love interests … or nagging reminders of mom. The brilliance of the first-person camera works come when Frank kills. As he dissociates, the camera moves out of his perspective to show what he is doing as well as indicating that the nice if odd guy we know is no longer in charge, submitting to the will of his dark half. It’s a nifty little trick that works to perfection.

As Maniac played, I kept thinking this is a little of what it would have been like had Alfred Hitchcock chosen to shoot Psycho in first person. The mommy issues, the psychosexual dysfunction, the huge swings in emotion and state of mind, all on display for the audience, but hidden from the players. It personalized Frank in a way Norman wasn’t in Hitchcock’s classic.

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